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.”

 

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”