Building Better Schools

How convincing teachers they could be ‘great’ helped transform this Indianapolis school

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post

A Speedway elementary school that was once known as the worst school in the its district was honored today for academic performance by the Indiana Department of Education.

Allison Elementary School was one of two schools recognized as Indiana’s 2016 National Title I Distinguished Schools — an honor that principal Jay Bedwell attributes to a positive school culture.

“It took me three years to change the culture in the building so that these teachers actually understood that they were capable of being great teachers,” said Bedwell who came to the school more than a decade ago when it was known as the worst of Speedway’s four elementary schools. Students would transfer to other schools, it was failing academically and the police were regularly called about discipline issues, he said.

The school faces challenges: More than 71 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance and more than one in five students are learning English.

But during Bedwell’s time as principal, the school got a new influx of funding from the federal government, and he has used most of that money for tools to track student progress and to hire an instructional coach and three instructional assistants who work with small groups of kids to get them up to speed.

That work is paying off: Despite its challenges, the school is thriving, and it exceeds the state and district average passing rate on the ISTEP. Assistant Superintendent Patti Bock said that the high test scores are particularly impressive because both students who are behind and those who are excelling show strong improvement.

“I know that those teachers work really hard,” Bock said. “It doesn’t matter what day you walk through that school. You are going to see loving, caring people and kids excited that they can do the work.”

In some ways, Allison is a small town school in the midst of a big city, said Bock.

Speedway is such a geographically compact district that instead of taking buses, students walk or drive the short distance to school. There are regular family nights at the school, and younger students know who their teachers will be in later grades.

In addition to Allison, Gavit Middle and High School in Hammond was also honored by the state today for its work closing the achievement gap.

“I am honored to recognize two exceptional schools today for their commitment to providing high-quality support and instruction to Hoosier students,” said Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.  “I applaud the hard work of the dedicated educators, students and families of Allison Elementary and Gavit Middle/High School on this distinguished achievement.”

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.

Building Better Schools

Training overhaul aimed at a big IPS shortfall: Just 1 in 4 student teachers stick around.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Seventy-four student teachers trained in Indianapolis Public Schools last year. But just 17 of those freshly minted educators were hired by the district after they graduated.

In a district where some schools struggle to hire enough teachers, that gap is a problem.

That’s why IPS is revamping teacher training to give student teachers more time in the classroom and attract new educators to the district.

“We really need to focus in on the folks who are student teaching in our buildings, making sure they have a really strong experience,” said Mindy Schlegel, who leads human resources for the district.

In order to attract new teachers and make sure they are well prepared, IPS is rolling out a host of plans, from making sure student teachers in traditional programs are working with experienced mentors to launching two new residency programs.

The residencies, which will be selective, will allow students to spend one to three years in the classroom — far more than the six to nine weeks education students typically spend teaching, said Schlegel.

Those plans are among three programs getting a boost from a new grant program run by the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports Indianapolis school reform.

  • IPS received a three-year, $207,000 grant to pay for a staffer dedicated to improving student teaching in the district;
  • KIPP Indianapolis received a three-year, $38,500 grant for a new yearlong leadership program for current teachers; and
  • Christel House Academy received a $20,000 grant to plan IndyTeach, a transition-to-teaching program at the charter school that it plans to pilot in 2017-2018.

The program will support new efforts to improve teacher recruitment, training, retention and diversity, said Jackie Gantzer, director of talent strategy for the Mind Trust.

“A lot of the best solutions to any one of those pieces is likely going to be developed and driven locally by schools and networks and the teachers who are in that environment,” she said. “We are really interested in testing those hypotheses and seeing what is effective and what can potentially be scaled.”

IPS plans to begin the first teaching residency this fall, with about 10 students from Purdue University’s online degree program in special education. The students will train in IPS schools during the three-year program.

The other residency is still in the planning stages, but the aim is to assign college students to work with experienced teachers in schools using new teacher-leadership models.

One reason the district is focusing its attention on improving recruitment of student teachers is that it is hard to attract educators from other areas, Schlegel said.

“A lot of urban districts are moving in this direction because it is so difficult to get teachers to relocate,” she said. “(We) are really refocusing our recruitment efforts to what local pipelines exist.”