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.”

 

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”