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.”

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those perimeters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

Building Better Teachers

20 educators from across Indiana have the chance to transform their profession

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows.

The Indianapolis branch of TeachPlus announced its newest cohort of policy fellows Wednesday, and there’s something a little bit different: For the first time, the 20 educators who will join the group are from rural, suburban and urban districts across Indiana.

TeachPlus is part of a national organization that trains teachers to advocate for policy, and it has been working with educators in Indianapolis since 2009. The group has played an influential role in Marion County, working with Indianapolis Public Schools on teacher evaluation models and pushing for a common enrollment system for public and charter schools. TeachPlus will continue a separate Indianapolis policy fellowship.

But as TeachPlus has focused on lobbying the legislature, it became clear that it should expand its membership to include educators from across the state, explained policy director Patrick McAlister. In part, that’s because legislators often give special attention to teachers from their own communities, he said.

“Sometimes the messenger is important when you are trying to shape policy and if a teacher or a person from your hometown says an issue is important, legislators listen,” he said. “There is so much focus on Indianapolis that voices from rural and suburban communities sometimes aren’t heard.”

While teachers from communities across the state bring different perspectives, McAlister said, they often share many of the same priorities, such as improving leadership opportunities.

(Read: Jean Russell, one of the new fellows, shared her experience finding her voice as a policy advocate with Chalkbeat.)

Here are the 20 educators who were chosen as statewide policy fellows:

Lesley Bright of Carlisle Middle School in Carlisle, IN

Carmen Napolitano of Fishers High School in Fishers, IN

Abby Taylor of Geist Elementary in Fishers, IN

Dominique Barnes of Mabel K. Holland in Fort Wayne, IN

Christopher McGrew of Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne, IN

Robert McKerr of Carroll High School in Fort Wayne, IN

Jean Russell of Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne, IN

Jessica Carlson of Garrett Middle School in Garrett, IN

Yvonne Lucas of Frankie Woods McCullough Girls’ Academy in Gary, IN

Liz Martin of Goshen Middle School in Goshen, IN

Jodi Koors of North Decatur Elementary School in Greensburg, IN

Christy Diehl of Jefferson High School in Lafayette, IN

John Gensic of Penn High School in Mishawaka, IN

Brittany Snyder of Northside Middle School in Muncie, IN

Megan Bilbo of Noblesville High School in Noblesville, IN

Allison Larty of Noblesville High School in Noblesville, IN

Michael Wallace of Sullivan High School in Sullivan, IN

Marianne Mazely-Allen of Terre Haute North Vigo High School in Terre Haute, IN

Kelly Day of Westfield Middle School in Westfield, IN

Amy Heath of Pleasant View Elementary in Yorktown, IN