Future of Schools

Flexibility for charters could change enrollment rules

Since the 2002 advent of charter schools in Indiana, deciding who can enroll when there weren’t enough seats has been done by a random lottery. Nobody gets to jump ahead to the front of the line.

But that could change under a bill approved by the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

Under Senate Bill 321, kids who apply to a charter school, and their siblings, would be enrolled ahead of the lottery if they came from another charter school run by the same organization. Proponents say it guarantees charter schools don’t end up out in the cold when they switch schools and helps keep families together.

Marcus Robinson, CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools, said the change is needed so kids who grow up in Tindley schools aren’t forced out as they age. Tindley operates an elementary school, two middle schools and a high school.

What happens, he said, to a student who finishes eighth grade at one Tindley school and wants to stay with his classmates as they move to Tindley’s high school?

“Our eighth graders cannot count on being seated in our ninth grade,” he said. “We are looking for an opportunity to say to those parents, ‘you will be able to continue a Tindley education in the fall if you so wish.’ ”

But Sen. Greg Taylor, R-Indianapolis, said he was surprised the bill appeared ready to simply dispense a section of the charter law designed to ensure fairness and transparency.

“Now we eliminate the lottery system?” he asked. “We’re making all these exceptions for charter schools. What about for public schools?”

Senate Bill 321 is mostly aimed at offering funding flexibility to networks of charter schools. It would allow a network to act in a role similar to a school district, with the ability to shift funds among schools and manage the money in one set of accounts. Under current law, each individual charter school is treated as the equivalent of a small school district, requiring separate accounts and prohibiting co-mingling of funds.

But also tucked in the bill is some enrollment flexibility.

The bill doesn’t eliminate lotteries and would keep the process open to public view. Many charter schools make their lotteries public, or videotape them to assure anyone with questions they were conducted fairly. But giving preference would still be a first for Indiana.

David Harris, CEO of the Indianapolis-based school reform group The Mind Trust, recalls attending many charter school lotteries when he oversaw former Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter school office. The whole idea is to ensure nobody gets an unfair advantage.

“They need to be public,” he said. “They need to be transparent. It needs to be a process that ensures 100 percent equity of access.”

But Harris is OK with the proposed change, saying it makes sense for the students who have been in a charter school network and their families. The bill should not be a major impediment to equal access to popular schools, he said.

“You want to make sure there is fair access to schools in the first place,” he said. “Equity of access is important. But you have that going into kindergarten. Their ability to stay within the network to graduation seems like exactly the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for families.”

Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League, said he had not yet seen the bill, but thought the change could bring problems. The bill might need more discussion, he said. He likened the enrollment preferences in the bill to a practice that some colleges use to make it easier for children of alumni, sometimes called ‘legacies,’ to enroll.

“It’s very troubling on its face,” he said. “I do not like the idea of having ‘legacy admissions’ in public schools. They are, after all, public schools.”

Taylor also asked at Wednesday’s hearing for assurances that charter schools would not be given flexibility beyond what is allowed at other public schools that use lotteries, such as magnet schools.

Magnet schools usually have a specialized instruction, such as Montessori curriculum or a classes in medicine. In Indianapolis Public Schools, most magnets are not selective in admission. Anyone can enroll if there is space. But IPS holds lotteries at its most popular magnet schools when there are more applicants than seats.

Like the proposal in the charter school bill, IPS offers priority to its own students.

Because Indiana allows students to transfer between school districts, magnet schools sometimes have applicants who don’t live in the district. They are allowed to attend IPS magnets, but only if there is extra space, said Rocky Grismore, the district’s student assignment director.

“As long as we have a waiting list of IPS kids we don’t seat out-of-district students through a lottery,” he said.

That’s what charter schools say they want, too, and their advocates say it’s only fair.

Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said he wants for charters the same option he had as boy, when he attended IPS. When he was in middle school, he didn’t have to go through a lottery for the chance to follow his classmates to the same high school.

“I (didn’t) have to wonder throughout my middle school years if I will get to continue with that program,” he said.

But for students vying to enter the system from outside — whether it’s an IPS magnet school or one of the Tindley schools — the state mandates open enrollment as long as there is space.

“And if enrollment is maxed out when the student initially enters, then they’d have to apply through a lottery process,” he said. “So the open enrollment and lottery systems are still in place.”

By the numbers

5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

PHOTO: (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
With wife Amy Rule by his side, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 he will not seek a third term in office at a press conference on the 5th floor at City Hall in Chicago.

Faced with an alarming report that lays bare shrinking enrollment and racial inequity, Chicago Public Schools must wrestle with some tough decisions. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election means he won’t be the one addressing those issues for much longer.

Here are five questions raised by the report that Emanuel’s successor faces:

What about all those empty seats?

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Historical enrollment and projections at Chicago Public Schools.

The Annual Regional Analysis, compiled by the school district and Kids First Chicago, projects plummeting enrollment to worsen in coming years. The district has more than 145,000 unfilled seats. By 2021 that gap could be more than 156,000 seats.

The next mayor will have to wrestle with that dismal trend just as Emanuel did in his first term, when he pushed the unpopular decision to shutter 50 schools. That move, research shows, exacted a heavy psychological toll on communities and hurt students’ academic achievement, especially in math. Yet, five years after the closings, the district still faces a massive surplus of classroom space, and is closing high schools in Englewood.

Some have argued that the district should change how it calculates space utilization at schools. They say the formula assumes an average class size of 30, and doesn’t adequately account for needs such as special education.

Community members have also called for an end to school closings, and said the city should consider creative solutions such as sharing space with social service agencies, redrawing attendance boundaries, and investing in academic programs to attract more students.

What can the city do to make neighborhood schools more attractive?

The analysis indicates that many families are skipping their neighborhood schools, including top-rated ones, for schools outside their area. Many schools suffer from low enrollment, and reside in communities where residents have cried out for more investments in neighborhood schools.

Kids First CEO Daniel Anello said the remedy should be to “improve quality and tell the community over and over again once you have.”

“There’s disparities terms of access and disparities in quality that need to be addressed,” he said. “The benefit of having a regional analysis is that people can see where those disparities are, and think about how we should invest in specific places to ensure the families there have access to high-quality options.”

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, who works as a community organizer and education consultant, was baffled to see that the West Side region, which includes Austin, has nearly 30,000 unfilled seats, about one in three of them at top-rated schools. Yet less than 40 percent of kids in the community attend their zoned neighborhood school. He said the district must combat stigma and misinformation that keeps people from neighborhood schools.

How can Chicago dig beyond school ratings to evaluate schools?

The analysis leans heavily on the annual school ratings policy.  But no rating system can tell the whole story about school quality — and Chicago’s ratings rely primarily on standardized test scores and attendance, metrics that often reflect the socioeconomic makeup of the areas from which schools draw their students.

If the new mayor’s administration continues current practice, it will undoubtedly run into opposition from community groups that have been vocal about what they see as shortcomings.

Alexios Rosario-Moore, research and policy associate at the community group Generation All, said, “What we need is a qualitative assessment that involves universities, researchers, non-profit organizations and communities to determine what kind of programming that community needs.”

Anello of Kids First said no measure is perfect, but that Chicago’s school rating approach stacks up favorably against other districts. Yet, he conceded that the ratings don’t fully flesh out what it’s like in classrooms, and that “we can always be working to make it a better measure.”



How does school choice intersect with transportation?

For better or for worse, the analysis showed that more and more students are attending choice schools, meaning buildings outside their assigned attendance area.

Some students have to travel far for the academic programs and high-quality schools they want, especially those coming from high-poverty neighborhoods and communities of color.

Elementary students travel 1.5 miles on average, but the average distance to school for elementary students is highest (2.6 miles) in the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore.

High school students travel 3.6 miles on average, but high schoolers in the Greater Stony Island area commute and average of 5 miles, tied for the longest community with the Far Southwest Side region that includes the Beverly and Morgan Park community areas.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs said, “a choice-based system in a large, urban district that lacks universal, free transportation isn’t even providing the same set of choices to all kids.”

And Rosario-Moore of Generation All said he finds it surprising “that in a city so oriented around a school choice model that public transportation is not free to all students.”

How can Chicago better engage its rich arts community through public schools?

Chicago doesn’t offer its highly-desirable fine arts programs equitably across the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown. Ingenuity Executive Director Paul Sznewajs praised Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson for investments in the arts and partnerships with cultural institutions and agencies, but said Chicago’s next mayor should do a better job of tapping into the city’s rich arts community.

He said that the Annual Regional Analysis focuses more narrowly on “a small sliver of arts in schools,” because it identifies available seats in what amounts to fine arts-focused magnet schools, of which he said there are probably 50-60 in the city.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available to elementary school students in each “planning area.”

But even if the school district were to double the number of arts magnet schools, Sznewajs said it must address equity, “so that when students walk into school, whether in Englewood or Ravenswood, that child can expect to the get the same things when it comes to the arts.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.