In the Classroom

Once fast-growing, Homegrown Summer Advantage dwindles to 160 Indianapolis students

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Mave Davis, a first grade teacher for Summer Advantage, looks on as a couple of students practice writing their names June 15 at Stephen Decatur Elementary School. Only 160 kids were able to participate this year, down from last year's 350.

Little “scholars” grabbed white paper breakfast bags as they hopped off their assigned buses last month at Stephen Decatur Elementary School and crowded against the walls in a hallway to eat.

They’re the lucky ones, program manager Stephanie Werner said.

The scene resembled a routine first day at any elementary school for these 160 students, except that it was summer and they were participating in a well-regarded program called Summer Advantage, designed to help them catch up to, or even jump ahead of, their peers.

But fewer kids than ever got the chance to reap the potential benefits.

“I’ve seen students come to us struggling at their current levels,” said Werner, who teaches second grade at Gold Academy during the school year. “When they return to school after being in Summer Advantage, they’re more on level with where they should be and where we would want the kids to be academically.”

Last year, more than twice as many Decatur kids — 350 of them — participated in Summer Advantage, a free program founded and nurtured in Indianapolis that aims to boost test scores for poor kids.

The trend is statewide: a fraction of the kids who were once a part of the program in Indiana are enrolled this summer.

Despite what supporters say is a strong track record of success, the once fast-growing program is now fading fast from Indiana while expanding to other places around the country. In Indianapolis, Summer Advantage is completely gone from two districts that were once key players — Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools.

So what happened?

The answer is partly money — after initial grants ran out, districts said they couldn’t afford to keep the program going. But founder Earl Martin Phalen thinks there’s more to the story. Districts cut ties with the program at the same time he launched a charter school.

A winning idea

Phalen, a one-time Harvard classmate of President Barack Obama, was the first winner of The Mind Trust’s education entrepreneur fellowship in 2009. The idea behind the fellowship was to cast a wide net in search of innovative ideas to help kids learn and bring the innovators to Indianapolis to try them out.

Once a foster kid, Phalen excelled to eventually graduate from Yale, and then Harvard. He joined a mentoring program while in law school and felt a kinship with children who needed help in school. So instead of working as a lawyer, he spent several years at a Boston nonprofit he co-founded that supported mentoring and after school programs. The summer, Phalen thought, was a missed opportunity for kids who needed a boost.

Phalen’s idea for Summer Advantage beat out hundreds of applications and he was given a year’s salary and start-up money to get the program off the ground on the condition he start it in Indianapolis.

Decatur signed on in 2009 to try it out and district officials were pleased by the results.

Based on tests given before and after students participated in Summer Advantage, kids were making as much ground academically in five weeks as they were during a full quarter of a school year. A student who was reading at a level that would be expected at the start of third grade, for example, was reading at a level equivalent to two and a half months into third grade by the program’s end.

Overall, Indianapolis student test scores showed the average student’s improvement equaled a jump ahead of about 2.3 months in reading and 2.4 months in math over the life of the program, Phalen said.

And the program was growing quickly.

In 2013, at its peak, a total of 2,415 Indianapolis kids in three school districts participated, and Phalen was even more ambitious. He told the Indianapolis Star he wanted it to serve 25,000 kids by 2014, including 10,000 in Indiana.

But in two years, things changed drastically.

Focus shifts to other states, charter school

In 2013, Phalen added a new dimension to his idea: building a charter school.

The broader goal was a network of Phalen Leadership Academy charter schools, and The Mind Trust, an education advocacy group, was again a key supporter. Phalen got start up aid from the city’s charter school incubator, which The Mind Trust also helped fund. The network will take over managing School 103 this fall in a first-of-its-kind partnership with IPS.

The Phalen Leadership Academy borrowed ideas from the summer program and built on it. But at the same time the school was taking shape, Summer Advantage began to shrink.

While enrollment has plummeted here, it remains steady in other cities around the country.

This summer, about 2,000 students participated in Colorado, Illinois, Alabama and New York. But it is no longer offered in Pike, IPS or other cities around the state, like Muncie and Elkhart, which the program also served briefly.

Money has been a big problem.

In the early years of the program, a key funding source were federal grants administered by the Indiana Department of Education.

For example, state records show Decatur Township received $977,051 in 2009 as part of a Reading First federal grant, which requires schools to take a scientific approach to reading instruction, according to Daniel Altman, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Phalen said he asked Ritz’s team to continue support for the program, but apparently Summer Advantage did not apply for new funds. Altman said department records show no applications submitted on behalf of Summer Advantage during Ritz’s administration.

In 2013, Pike and IPS ended partnerships with the program.

Phalen thinks it’s no coincidence two key districts backed out as his new charter school took off.

“The grants ran out and then the two districts where we were serving the most kids ended their partnership with us because we applied to run a charter school,” Phalen said. “Those were 2,000 students who we were deeply connected to.”

But Pike Superintendent Nate Jones rejected the argument that politics was a factor. He said Pike cut ties simply because there wasn’t enough federal funding.

“If they hadn’t offered us that money, we would have never entered that partnership with him to begin with,”  Jones said.

Former IPS Superintendent Eugene White declined to comment.

‘A win-win scenario’ for Decatur, but will it hold up?

The program, which ended for the summer on Friday, survived this year. But its future in Indiana is unclear.

This year, The Indianapolis Foundation and the Summer Youth Program Fund raised about $175,000 collectively for Summer Advantage, said Roderick Wheeler, who oversees both grants for the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The program, which costs $1,400 per kid, was about $32,000 short of its goal Friday.

The Indianapolis Foundation helps fund about 80 summer programs, Wheeler said, but Summer Advantage is unique.

“There are very few – if any – summer programs that partner with school districts,” Wheeler said. “Summer Advantage is a vendor. What makes that helpful is nonprofit dollars coming alongside public dollars.”

CICF will continue to seek other partners and hopes to help Summer Advantage expand to serve 1,000 kids in Indianapolis over the next three years.

In Decatur, Superintendent Matthew Prusiecki said the program is good for the kids who participate.

Summer Advantage offers a mix of math and literacy instruction along with enrichment activities. Fridays are spent on extra-curricular opportunities, like field trips and guest speakers.

In Decatur, students spent the first three hours of each weekday in the classroom, which was led by a teacher and teaching assistant, followed by an hour of lunch and recess and two hours of art provided by Arts for Learning, a local nonprofit.

“It’s just a win-win scenario for us here in Decatur,” Prusiecki said. “As long as we can continue to work things out together — we have the demand as far as our students are concerned — there’s no reason not to continue Summer Advantage.”

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

disaster ready

Here’s how New York City schools are preparing to serve students impacted by Hurricane Maria

Just weeks after Hurricane Maria traced a deadly path across the Caribbean, The New American Academy Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn got a call.

It was a family member looking for a school for two young relatives after their home on Dominica was wrecked, along with most of the small island.

Before long, the students were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. The school quickly gave the family a scholarship for after-school care and provided free uniforms — even including new shoes, socks and underwear.

“They lost everything,” said Lisa Parquette Silva, the school’s headmaster. “As soon as I heard these two students needed a place, it was not a question.”

New York City is preparing to potentially welcome an influx of students fleeing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after the powerful hurricane struck in September, knocking out power grids and flattening homes. The leaders of the country’s largest school system insist they are ready for whomever comes.

“We are going to do whatever we can to support and accommodate them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a recent press conference, “starting with our public schools.”

Hundreds of thousands could flee Puerto Rico. As home to some of the largest Caribbean communities on the mainland, New York City is a logical place for many of those people to land. They are likely to bring with them an untold number of children who need to enroll in schools — though officials say it’s hard to know how many until they actually arrive.

Already, the Orlando school system reported enrolling almost 300 students from Puerto Rico as of last week. In Miami-Dade, the number was around 200, according to The 74.

In New York City, schools have not yet seen a significant uptick in enrollment, officials said. The few students who have arrived have landed in Bronx and Brooklyn schools, they added.

Serving those students will likely require a host of extra resources. The Miami-Dade school system is expecting to spend $2,200 for every student the district takes in, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city has sent representatives to Puerto Rico to understand how the situation there could impact schools. Meanwhile, the education department has begun to survey principals here to find out which schools have space to take in new students — and assured those schools that they would get extra funding. Guidance counselors are being trained to meet storm survivors’ unique needs.

“Money will be allotted to those schools to be able to service those children,” Fariña said at the press conference, “understanding in many cases there may be extra support needed for families and trauma.”

The state education department recently put out guidance for schools, saying children who have fled a disaster are likely protected by federal law for homeless students. Under the law, districts can waive documentation requirements for school enrollment — which the city is doing at its Family Welcome Centers — and students are eligible for free meals.

Nicholas Tishuk, executive director of Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings charter school in Brooklyn, said he is already fielding calls from people who are looking for schools as they consider whether to bring over family members from Puerto Rico.

The independent charter school recently packed a van with donated lanterns, batteries and water to be shipped to the island. School leaders have also put the word out that they are ready to enroll students impacted by the storm.

If the school runs out of space, Tishuk hopes it can still serve as a clearinghouse to put families in touch with other local options.

“A school can be a very powerful place to get extra resources,” he said, noting that New Beginnings has a bilingual staff that regularly collaborates with social-service agencies. “Even if it’s not our school, you should reach out to a school that can help you connect to those resources.”

Schools that take in displaced students will most likely have to offer bilingual classes and provide counselors who can support children who have been separated from their parents and are living in the city with relatives.

Eve Colavito, director of schools for DREAM charter school in East Harlem, said one of the most important things schools can provide is stability. The pre-K through ninth-grade school enrolled a middle school student from Puerto Rico this week.

“Our goal initially,” she said, “is to make school as normal and predictable as possible for them.”