Are Children Learning

Indianapolis private schools score high but most saw ISTEP drops

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Hasten Hebrew Academy in Washington Township was the highest scoring private school in Indianapolis and also had one of the biggest gains over last year.

While many Indianapolis private schools were among the state’s very highest scoring on this year’s ISTEP test, a surprisingly high number of them saw lower scores than in 2013.

Statewide, about 43 percent of about 300 private schools did worse this year than last year. In Indianapolis, it was a majority of private schools — 55 percent — that lost ground from the prior year. (Find your school’s ISTEP scores here. Or see a sortable list of Indianapolis private school scores at the bottom of this story.)

There some factors to consider in those results.

ISTEP is only given in grades 3 to 8, so private high schools, some of which tend to be high-performing, are not included. Also, not all private schools with elementary grades take the state test. It is not required for private schools. And many of the schools that lost ground from the prior year were only down slightly from where they were.

That appeared to be the case for several Indianapolis Catholic schools that dropped less than two percentage points from the prior year but still saw more than 90 percent of kids pass.

Helping fuel strong Catholic school results each year is consistency, said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

“Students who attend Catholic schools are well prepared and do well on the test,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what we get with kids who come to our schools. We get them early and they tend to stay. When we can get kids in early grades and keep them, we do a very good job of teaching them the basic building blocks to be good students through their entire lives.”

In Marion County about one-third of private schools rank in the top quarter for percent passing both English and math on ISTEP among more than 1,800 schools who took the exam statewide. That percentage is four times higher than the percentage of schools ranked in the state’s top quarter for all eight Marion County townships combined (8 percent) and almost eight times more than Indianapolis Public Schools (5 percent) and all of the county’s charter schools combined (4 percent).

Five of the state’s top 10 schools for percent passing ISTEP were private schools, including Indianapolis’ Hasten Hebrew Academy, ranked eighth with 98.2 percent passing.

Principal Miriam Gettinger said Hasten made a concerted effort to reach for very high scores this year that paid off.

The school has had a long run of very high passing rates in the range of 90 to 95 percent passing, but last year slipped to a still very high 89.3 percent.

Gettinger said the staff went to work figuring out what their students needed help with.

“After last year we did some very careful data analysis of our school and their scores,” she said.

The school does not have access to diagnostic tests that public schools use to prepare for the state test, Gettinger said, so teachers created their own mini-tests with ISTEP-like questions focused on areas they identified as weaknesses for their students.

One example was math problem-solving. Teachers wrote ISTEP-style questions that students took each week to check on how well they were learning the concepts from class and figuring out how to apply them for the state exam.

In writing, students got more practice in ISTEP-like essay questions, writing narrative or persuasive essays each week.

At the same time, Hasten is solidifying a curriculum change it made about five years ago, with a heavier focus on critical thinking skills and writing in all subjects, even art, music and physical education.

“At the end of gym, they’ll write a reflection on the activity or a social scenario, like competition,” Gettinger said.

The curriculum changes, she said, made Hasten a stronger school.

“We absolutely will not teach to a test,” Gettinger said.

In Marion County, eight of the top 10 ranked schools for ISTEP passing rate are private schools, along with two IPS schools: Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted students which ranked No. 1 statewide at 100 percent passing, and School 84, a Center for Inquiry magnet school, which ranked 20th statewide with 96.3 percent passing.

Most of the county’s top 10 are Catholic schools, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary School on Indianapolis’ north side at 94.7 percent passing.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis

A factor that might be helping Catholic school performance is a tradition of strong parental involvement. That might be partly driven by the desire to get the most out of the tuition parents pay, said Otolski, but it’s also because of an openness to parents in the school and an emphasis on involving them in student learning.

“If you’re paying $4,000 or $5,000 a year to send your kid to a grade school, I suppose you might be more motivated to pay attention to what your kids are doing,” he said. “But every parent wants their child to succeed. Catholic schools are really open to inviting parents to take part inside the classroom. Expectations are set early on that there will be a lot of work and parents are going to have to be involved to guide children to learn good study habits.”

The top scoring township school — Lawrence Township’s Amy Beverland Elementary School — ranked 14th best in the county and 186th statewide at 90.2 percent passing.

In other states, few private schools participate in the state testing program, but most in Indiana do. Private schools in Marion County have long been among the highest scorers on ISTEP. Enrollment at many private schools, especially Catholic schools, is growing thanks to Indiana’s fast-growing voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to use tax dollars to pay a portion of private school tuition bills for their children.

Critics say a big reason private schools do better on ISTEP is because they can be selective, picking which students to enroll and expelling those who fail to behave or achieve academically. Several of the county’s private schools use vouchers to serve significantly poorer students, who tend to have more problems in school. But some of those schools still scored well on ISTEP.

Otolski said it might be true that some Catholic schools have demographic advantages that help them perform well on ISTEP. But that’s not always the case.

“We’ve got kids all across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We have plenty of schools that are toward the core of the city that have just as much of the same kinds of difficulties as public schools.”

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.