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.”

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.