Future of Schools

Tindley's woes, and CEO's departure, raise tough questions for charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Marcus Robinson has long had his critics, but in many ways, his name has been synonymous with the best successes of Indiana’s charter school movement.

Robinson was the driving force behind Tindley Accelerated Schools, the top-scoring charter school network in The Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. Tindley post some of the highest test scores in the city despite enrolling many children who must overcome poverty-related barriers to learning.

So revelations over the past two months of financial troubles at Tindley, including questionable travel expenses incurred by Robinson, have rippled far beyond the school.

Robinson said last week he would step down by the end of the school year and leave Tindley, but the controversy raises broader questions for charter schools in Indiana’s school choice epicenter.  Among them:

  • Will the departure of a key leader from one of Indiana’s strongest charter school groups weaken the movement? Robinson’s record and reputation made him one Indiana’s most respected charter school voices. But his last chapter at Tindley is now already serving as an example of the worst fears of charter critics about the potential misuse of public dollars intended to serve children.
  • Will Robinson resurface somewhere else in Indiana’s charter school world? Robinson said his immediate goal is to finish a Columbia University doctorate he has been traveling to New York to pursue, but his next steps after that are in doubt.
  • Are the well-regarded Tindley schools in trouble? The immediate road ahead looks bumpy. School officials pledged that they will solve their money problems, but further expansion plans — which once included ambitions for 14 Tindley schools by 2023 — have been halted.

Tindley champion David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit that advocates for educational change, believes Tindley’s setback will be short lived.

“The future is extremely bright, by far brighter than it’s ever been since I’ve been doing this work,” Harris said. “Tindley will not only weather this, they will be a big part of it going forward.”

But Joel Hand of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a group that has lobbied against expanding school choice, said he hopes Robinson’s resignation is seen as a cautionary tale about the potential excesses of charter schools.

“The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children,” he said. “Maybe this is the ultimate accountability for Marcus Robinson and Tindley.”

A high-scoring, fast-growing charter network

For Tindley, it’s not just high test scores that have made the network a charter school darling. Robinson and his team have raised hopes that successful schools can be the centerpiece of a wider effort to improve struggling neighborhoods.

Since the first Tindley school opened in 2004 at the site of abandoned grocery store, The Meadows has seen crime fall and community investments grow as more kids attended, and graduated from, the now six-school network.

“It’s a transformed place,” Harris said. “The ripple effect will be felt for many generations in that community. They had a fabulous vision and a fabulous team, but Marcus was the one that made that come to a reality. What he accomplished is really extraordinary.”

Then-Mayor Greg Ballard hailed the school-led overhaul of The Meadows as a model for other neighborhoods to follow. By its fifth year, the school was exceeding state averages on standardized tests, graduating three-quarters of its students and sending most of them to college. A waiting list of families that wanted to enroll began to lengthen and some families were even moving into The Meadows to be closer to the school.

What followed was more than $60 million in investment in The Meadows, Tindley board member John Neighbors said. That includes the schools, new apartments, a wellness center and a YMCA.

“Had the schools not been successful, it would have been much harder to do that,” Neighbors said.

None of it could have happened without Robinson, Neighbors said. The school was actually rejected the first time it applied for a charter and was only able to secure one after Robinson, then a Cathedral High School teacher, came on board.

But as much as Robinson’s fans credit his leadership with building Tindley into a success, his recent choices have gotten much of the blame for the school’s suddenly murky future.

Financial woes come to light

Robinson has had to explain his own questionable travel spending at the same time he was pushing an aggressive plan to build new schools.

It was that expansion — since 2012, Tindley has added two middle schools and three elementary schools — that helped set the stage for the money problems the network faces today.

The new schools were made possible by a $4.5 million gift from a donor, Robinson said. It was helped along by consistently strong test scores that kept attracting more students. The four schools that have been open long enough to qualify for state grades earned two A’s and two B’s last year.

But Robinson and the Tindley board failed to anticipate the intense competition the new schools would face from a flood of new charter schools. Ballard, who left office in January, nearly doubled the number of city-sponsored charter schools in his tenure to more than 30, leaving many schools — not just Tindley — scrambling to fill their classrooms with enough students to pay their bills.

Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Tindley Acclerated Schools CEO Marcus Robinson agreed to take over management of Arlington High School, which was taken over from IPS by the state in 2012.

By 2014, Tindley was in enough of a financial squeeze that Robinson abruptly ended a contract with the state to manage Arlington High School, a former Indianapolis Public School that was taken over by the state in 2012, and Tindley pulled out at the end of that school year. He blamed the state for turning down his request for more aid, saying running Arlington had gotten too costly.

The school’s problems intensified later in 2014 when the Indianapolis NAACP criticized the network for its high expulsion rate, perhaps dissuading some families from enrolling their children. Tindley had expelled students at a much higher rate than other schools in the city but Robinson insisted tough discipline was not negotiable in order to ensure stable learning environments.

And by last December, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported a series bleak developments: a $2.8 million cash shortfall, a former treasurer who described the organization as “broke” and a $8.7 million bailout from a state loan fund that equated to nearly half its annual budget.

With all of that going on, reports of Robinson’s spending caught even some of his supporters by surprise.

Former Treasurer Eric Stovall told the Indianapolis Business Journal some of Robinson’s travel expenses, including $10,000 to stay in expensive hotels during several visits to New York and sometimes flying first class were, in his view, “unethical” for the leader of a cash-strapped charter school network.

But Robinson insists he violated no rules and would have paid the extra costs for the more expensive airline tickets and hotel rooms had anyone asked him to.

“Tindley has one of the best charter boards in the country,” he said. “They are very astute and serious about their fiduciary duty. They violated no laws and broke no ethics rules, nor have any of their staff in how they have traveled.”

Travel expenses raise concerns

Board member Neighbors said the board has put together a committee stocked with financial experts that he is confident will craft a plan to lead the school back to fiscal stability.

“The board needs to assure the financial integrity of the school,” he said. “We will conquer these issues if we can keep the kind of people we have in place and keep the parents’ confidence, which we will do.”

But it might be a while before anyone talks about expansion again.

“I don’t think there is additional money to fund growth in this market,” Robinson said.

Neighbors isn’t placing blame on Robinson. In fact, he argued that it’s a mistake to conflate Robinson’s travel expenses, which he said were noticed and addressed more than a year ago, with Tindley’s more recent financial troubles.

“We didn’t find any impropriety in Marcus’ conduct,” Neighbors said. “Maybe he should have thought more carefully about something like this. But he didn’t do it every week. It was a few instances of first class travel and staying in hotels that maybe he shouldn’t have.”

Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Schools, (center) addresses the Indiana State Board of Education in 2014.

But Hand, whose organization seeks to defend what it sees as attacks on traditional public schools, said it’s difficult to see public education dollars flowing to an administrator’s lavish travel spending — something he said seems far more likely in a charter network than a public school district.

“I’d be shocked if there was any traditional public school administrator spending their money similarly,” he said. “The vast majority of public schools are cutting all travel for teachers and administrators and for professional development. To hear a story about charter school where the head of school is making these kinds of expenditures is very troubling.”

To Hand, Robinson’s spending, and Tindley’s deep financial woes, demonstrate one of the central dangers that critics of charter schools have long warned about: that relaxed oversight makes the public dollars ripe for misuse.

“Freeing up schools from certain regulations is not a bad thing,” Hand said. “But if its not accompanied with strict oversight and high levels of accountability we can have problems just like this.”

Whereas a public school is overseen by an elected school board accountable to the public, charter school oversight is more complex. Tindley is a private, nonprofit organization with a board of directors that employs its staff, but it also is monitored by the mayor’s office, which serves as its sponsor.

Kristin Hines, the city’s charter school director, noted that the city had called for Tindley to tighten up its financial practices following some recent reviews and audits.

“We continue to routinely and regularly oversee the board and the school’s financial performance, she said. “We have held the school responsible through annual financial reports in the past. We will continue to hold the school accountable to rigorous financial standard and high expectations with regard to board oversight.”

But Hand said the oversight in this case seemed to leave a lot to be desired.

“Doesn’t this kind of speak to the lack of accountability and oversight that is really there for many charter schools?” he said. “The use of these dollars for charter schools is supposed to be geared toward educating the children.”

A doctorate and an uncertain future

Robinson said the decision to leave Tindley was his alone and was not a result of the network’s financial woes.

“My top priority is finishing this doctorate I started four and a half years ago,” he said. “There was just no way I could do that at the helm of Tindley. The rigors are too much.”

Part of his motivation to finish, he said, is to reinforce with his actions the schools’ mantra for their students: They need to finish what they start academically.

“My first priority is to be a role model for what I expect from kids,” Robinson said.

After that? He’s not sure.

“It will definitely be about kids,” he said.

Robinson has two young children. He’s not necessarily looking to move on from Indianapolis. But he wouldn’t rule it out.

“I would hope my next opportunity would be here,” he said. “But I’m open to whatever.”

Neighbors said he wishes Robinson would have stayed on.

“What’s regrettable, and I hesitate to say this, what we’ve experienced over the last several months created enough stress in Marcus’ own mind to cause him to evaluate his situation and make the decision that he made,” Neighbors said. “I am personally disappointed that we move into a new era without Marcus but I am encouraged by what we have in place.”

 

End of the line

Roots Elementary, a small Denver charter school with big ideas, will close this spring

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Roots Elementary in Denver

Faced with low enrollment and a significant mortgage, a stand-alone charter elementary school in northeast Denver will close its doors this spring after just four years.

Roots Elementary sent a letter to supporters Wednesday night announcing that its board of directors voted to make this school year its last. The board had been exploring the possibility that Roots become part of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, but the letter says it became clear earlier this month that the takeover “was not going to materialize.”

“Our school was hit particularly hard this year by low enrollment due in large part to the declining school-age population in the neighborhood,” says the letter, which was signed by the school’s founder, its board chair, its interim executive director, and its principal.

“As we looked ahead to next year and beyond as a stand-alone school, we recognized that without a significant increase in student enrollment, which is unlikely given the neighborhood trends, we would not have the resources needed to provide the rigorous program emphasizing our core values of grit, relationships, ownership, and wonder (GROW) that our scholars deserve.”

Roots opened in 2015 with a drastically different model that had kindergarteners and first-graders using iPads to navigate personalized schedules, and an ambitious goal of better serving students in a historically low-income neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying.

This year, the school has just 182 students enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade. (Roots does not have fifth grade; it would have added it next year.) That’s 39 fewer students than it projected it would have, according to a district document. More than 90 percent are students of color, and nearly 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Denver schools are funded per pupil, and those with fewer than 300 students tend to struggle financially. Denver Public Schools has provided extra funding to district-run schools with low enrollment to ensure they can hire enough teachers and buy needed supplies. But as an independently operated charter school, Roots didn’t get that same financial support.

Also unlike a district-run school, Roots had to pay for its own building. Whereas many charter schools rent space in district buildings or church basements, Roots built its own brand-new school in North Park Hill on a site once marred by gang violence.

District officials cited the cost of that building as one of the hurdles facing the school. Partly because of its shaky finances, officials had recommended the Denver school board keep a close eye on Roots. The school’s charter is set to expire in the spring, and district officials suggested the school board renew it — but only for one year, with the possibility for an extension.

The school’s academic performance also played a role in that recommendation. After struggling with its highly personalized model, Roots switched to a more traditional classroom structure. Although students were making a good amount of academic progress, state tests showed that only 10 percent of third-graders could read on grade-level last year.

The Denver school board was set to vote Thursday on whether to renew the Roots charter. But the school’s decision to close has made that vote unnecessary.

“While Roots will not be the enduring solution, we are proud of the effort we made and results we achieved,” the letter from Roots leaders says. “We gave it our all.”

Read the letter in its entirety below.

November 14, 2018
Dear Roots Friends and Supporters:

It is with a heavy heart that we write to inform you that the Roots Board of Directors voted on November 9 that this school year will be the final year of operations for Roots Elementary.

It became clear earlier this month that the partnership that we had been exploring with Rocky Mountain Prep was not going to materialize. Our teams worked collaboratively and diligently to explore this opportunity and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a partnership pathway that worked well for both of our organizations.

Our school was hit particularly hard this year by low enrollment due in large part to the declining school-age population in the neighborhood. As we looked ahead to next year and beyond as a stand-alone school, we recognized that without a significant increase in student enrollment, which is unlikely given the neighborhood trends, we would not have the resources needed to provide the rigorous program emphasizing our core values of grit, relationships, ownership, and wonder (GROW) that our scholars deserve.

Launched in 2015, Roots was founded to provide a high-quality option for students in North Park Hill. Conceived with a vision of high levels of personalization and flexibility to meet students where they are, and an equal focus on socio-emotional learning, the model has adapted over time to best meet the needs of the community. The school has grown to become the highest-performing in the neighborhood on DPS’s school performance framework, achieving a green rating on academic growth for two years in a row by providing a trauma-informed environment attuned to the full and varying needs of our scholars. But, ultimately, without a sustainable level of resources over time, we would not be able to give our scholars what they deserve. The board has put our scholars at the forefront of this decision and is hopeful that other strong school options will emerge to fill the gap that will exist without Roots.

While Roots will not be the enduring solution, we are proud of the effort we made and results we achieved. We gave it our all. As a community, we have a moral imperative to do better to serve our highest-need communities. Far more than the same-old, same-old is required to achieve an equitable education in communities most impacted by poverty and generations of racial injustice. We must not let ourselves off the hook for doing more to support those that can most benefit from additional resources and options.

As we prepare to end this story at Roots, we do so with two thoughts uppermost in mind.

First, as we communicated with our staff and families, we intend to finish this final school year on a high note. And to work personally and individually with families and staff alike to find the best setting and opportunities for each of them going forward.

Second, we feel a profound gratitude to our partners, supporters, and community members who provided the resources and ideas necessary to launch Roots and help it to grow and evolve. The impact of this support has been immense and is immeasurable.

Let us close with a quote by way of perspective.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– President Theodore Roosevelt

Our disappointment is tempered by our deep appreciation. Thank you.

Eric Sondermann
Board Chair

Stephanie Wilson Itelman
Interim Executive Director

Kathryn Martinez
Principal

Jon Hanover
Founder & Board Member

external control

State Board of Education pushes Adams 14 to give up authority over its schools

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

With the Adams 14 district failing to meet state academic expectations for eight years, Colorado education officials plan to send in an outside manager — but they don’t trust the district to agreeably cede its authority.

So before it steps in, the board late Wednesday moved to specify what powers it can force the district to give up.

State Board of Education members asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

The State Board met Wednesday to consider ordering drastic actions for the lowest performing school district in the state, in order to improve the education of the approximately 7,500 Adams 14 students. The state board was expected to vote Thursday, but may now delay its final order until getting legal advice on what it can request from the district.

State board member Joyce Rankin said the board must provide a clear and explicit explanation of its expectations, “because I thought we had this a year ago and apparently we did not.”

Leaders of Adams 14, based in Commerce City, presented their proposal to cede some of their authority, by hiring two outside groups — one to manage the district and one to manage the high school — but maintaining the local school board.

A state review panel that visited Adams 14 cited ineffective district leadership and recommended turning it over to an external manager.

Members of the State Board of Education had several critical questions for district leaders, especially around how much authority the district is willing to give up.

Superintendent Javier Abrego told the state board members that the external manager would not have control over hiring or firing staff.

Board member Steve Durham said that he sensed that both the Adams 14 school board and administration were unwilling to give up significant authority.

Durham earlier had pushed district leaders, including board President Connie Quintana, about whether they would voluntarily give up the right to approve every change an external manager might want to make.

Quintana said she would consider every one of the manager’s recommendation.

“They’re going to tell me what to do so I’m going to adhere to their directives,” Abrego tried to reassure Durham.

“Unless the board tells you to do something else,” Durham said. “It’s difficult to serve more than one master.”

When asked specifically about staffing, Quintana said she was not willing to give up that authority, and then when pushed further, said she would have to discuss it with the rest of the board and the district’s attorney.

State board members also said they had concerns that the district’s proposal sounds similar to its proposal last year, which hasn’t resulted in much progress.

Colorado law dictates that when a school or district has received one of the state’s two lowest ratings for more than five years in a row, the state must step in. Under the law passed earlier this decade, last year was the first year schools or districts could reach that five-year mark.

Those that did, including Adams 14, crafted plans with state officials to make changes and set goals for improvement.

Some low-performers have since improved, and a few others have more time to show progress. But state officials set a deadline of this fall for Adams 14 to earn higher ratings. The district failed to meet that goal.

Many of the changes the state board can order, such as merging districts, have never been tried in Colorado. But even so, Durham proposed that the state spell out what will happen if Adams 14 fails to give up full management authority. In that case, he proposed, the state’s order should state that the district could lose accreditation and the district would have to start procedures to dissolve.

State board President Angelika Schroeder agreed Wednesday that that may be appropriate language.

The hearing was packed, with several people set up to watch the meeting from the building’s lobby. Among those who traveled to Denver for the hearing were teachers, parents, advocates, and the district’s entire five-member school board.

A couple of community members were disappointed they were not allowed to give public comment Wednesday. A nearly monthlong process for written community input closed on Monday.

State board members rejected the criticism that they had not sought out community input, referencing multiple times the “mountains” of written comments that have been submitted for them to review. Much of the public comment submitted to the state board came from teachers union leaders from across the state asking for the state board to avoid turning any of their schools over to charter control.