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.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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