Who Is In Charge

IPS aims to fix troubled high schools by flooding ‘transformation zones’ with support (updated)

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at School 48 work on a class project.

After years of clashing with state officials over state takeovers of public schools, Indianapolis Public Schools are now taking a new approach — they are working with the state.

With the state’s blessing, the district has assigned seven of its lowest-scoring schools — among those most at risk for takeovers — to new “transformation zones” where they get extra support from the district. The idea is to turn them around without the state taking charge.

That means frequent visits from teaching coaches, tailored teacher training and new approaches to teacher leadership, including a pilot program beginning next year in which the district will offer extra pay to some successful teachers who agree to coach their peers and take on additional students.

For now, the zone schools are getting several visits a week from a team of five coaches who work with teachers to help them better meet the needs of struggling students.

“(It) is a cutting edge model in terms of focusing on the target schools and providing them with some very high-quality assistance, with very high expectations,” said Cheryl Beeson, the director of transformation for high schools for IPS.

Modeled on a much-lauded turnaround program implemented in Evansville, the state-funded $1.55 million program is administered in partnership with Mass Insight, a Massachusetts-based company that helped create the program in Evansville. It is designed to give schools the tools they need to improve — whatever those tools may be.

It’s not always easy to know what a school needs, Beeson said, but zone schools receive intense scrutiny that can help point school leaders to the best solutions.

“Within a short amount of time, we will see some strands of answers,” Beeson said. “There won’t be one answer, but there will be various things that are connected and interrelated.”

The district is in its first year of implementing the zones, so it is too early to tell whether they will achieve the goals the district has outlined or dramatically improve floundering student test scores.

But just establishing the zones was a radical shift for IPS and the Indiana State Board of Education. While Indianapolis has, in recent years, seen contentious state-led efforts to improve struggling schools, IPS is taking the lead with this new approach. With the support of the state board, it is initiating its own efforts to fix failing schools.

Fixing the pipeline

Transformation zones aim to solve a big challenge facing IPS: by the time students reach middle or high school, they can be years behind in learning. Those learning delays can cause behavior problems that exacerbate academic issues. That’s why the zones are designed as clusters around two struggling Westside high schools and schools that typically feed into them.

The schools in the zone are Northwest and George Washington high schools and four elementary schools —School 48, School 107, School 63 and School 49.

Arlington High School, which was returned to the district this fall following state takeover, also is part of the transformation zone program though its feeder schools are not currently involved.

The k-12 structure allows the district to help kids at every stage, officials say.

For younger kids, the program aims to reduce the number of students failing state tests and catch them up on the skills, such as reading at grade level, they’ll need to succeed as they progress. In middle and high schools, the challenge is helping students who are already lagging far behind their peers.

At all levels, said Brynn Kardash, the director of transformation for elementary schools, the solution is based on a simple premise: providing intensive, high-quality training to school staff and leaders to help change school cultures and, eventually, lead to more learning.

“It’s not that we try to do everything different in the transformation zones,” Kardash said. “We just have the resources to provide more frequent support within the zones to the elementary and to the high schools.”

The intense coaching and training is especially important at struggling schools that are often staffed with relatively inexperienced teachers since the combination of inexperienced teachers with tough-to-teach, high-need students can be particularly challenging.

Changing practices

Like all of the schools in the transformation zones, School 48 has gotten low marks from the state. On nearly every report card in the last five years, it’s been rated an F. Last year, just 21 percent of students passed the math and reading sections of the state ISTEP standardized exam.

The school’s administration has been in turmoil. When Principal Crishell Sam took over a year ago, she was the third leader the school had in a single year. But now that the school is part of the zone program, Sam is banking on the right support to change the school’s direction.

The transformation zone program sends Kardash and a coach to the school several days a week, Sam said. At first Gabriel Surface, the coach at School 48, was there all day, three days a week, but now that teachers are settled in, he’s down to half days. Surface is a resource for teachers, said Sam, because he has time to provide a lot more one-on-one attention than she does.

When teachers face stubborn problems, they are asking for help earlier and more often than before the zone, she said.
“It’s a more proactive approach,” Sam said.

Sometimes teachers will meet with a coach to talk through barriers for individual students, like a kid who is struggling to recognize the sounds that begin words, an early reading skill. Other times, they will address broader teaching weaknesses.

This week, for example, Surface is working with a teacher who has been having a hard time using stations: kids are not transitioning smoothly from one activity to another and the stations have work for students at different levels.

Another teacher at School 48 has really mastered stations, Sam said, so Surface and the teacher who’s struggling spent some time in her classroom, watching how she made it work. They talked through what was working, and now they are bringing those successful ideas back to the first classroom to see if they can make stations more useful.

When a school is not meeting state standards, educators need to be open to new approaches, Sam said.

“We have to take a look and reflect and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do different?’” she said.

Uncertain results

Over the last decade there’s been a huge push to improve failing schools in Indiana, with the state board actively intervening in schools that receive low ratings from the Indiana Department of Education. The transformation zones are testing a new approach to handling failing schools — one that sidesteps the possibility of state takeover or other state involvement by targeting resources at schools without taking control away from the district.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and district partner Mass Insight pitched the zones to the state board, which endorsed the plan. The state board is fully funding the first year of the project, including the cost for staff and consulting fees, using $1.55 million in federal grant money.

Proponents of the transformation zones have been clear from the start: turning around deeply troubled schools is not a quick fix. When he spoke to the state board, Mass Insight President Chris Maher acknowledged that improving test scores would be a long-term challenge. In the early stages, he said, the zone schools should see improved attendance, reduced suspensions and positive feedback from teachers.

So far, the impact on attendance has been murky. IPS provided average daily attendance rates in the schools for January 2015 and 2016. Attendance improved at most of the schools by between about 1 and 2 percentage points, and it’s near 95 percent.

But a few schools actually saw declines in attendance, including the high school grades at George Washington High School, where average daily attendance dipped by 4.5 percentage points to 87 percent. That’s troubling because attendance is strongly linked to student achievement and high school graduation.

School 48 is just beginning a push to improve attendance, Sam said. But her school already has seen improvements in student discipline, she said. The school has seen fewer behavior problems compared to last year, though she declined to provide details. The district initially agreed to provide data on discipline and suspension rates at transformation zone schools but, more than a week later, has not yet provided any details.

UPDATE: In the hours after this this story published, the district provided suspension rates in the zone schools for January 2015 and 2016. The number of suspensions dropped to 47 this year compared to 168 last year. School 48 had two suspension in January 2016, up from zero during the same period last year.

Less than a year into the new initiative, the jury is still out on how successful the zones will be at transforming schools, but Sam is optimistic about the benefits of the extra support.

“Whenever you’re dealing with a school who has some deficits,” she said, “the more hands on deck, the better.”

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”


Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: