Building Better Schools

Shrink classes or hire a counselor? IPS principals will get more power — and face tough choices

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When principal Tihesha Guthrie realized how many of her students were struggling with attendance and discipline, she made an unusual choice: She decided increase class sizes.

It might sound counter-intuitive but Guthrie, who runs School 99, a northeast side elementary school, said increasing class sizes by five students per class freed up enough money to hire a student discipline specialist, a math coach and a teacher who specialized in teaching social skills like relationship building and self-control. Guthrie credits those hires, along with the extra 30 minutes she added to the school day, with creating more stability for students and improving attendance.

“Our flexibilities have increased outcomes,” Guthrie said.

Most Indianapolis Public Schools principals would not have been allowed to make the kinds of sweeping changes Guthrie made this year — but that’s about to change.

School 99 was one of just six schools that piloted the district’s new “autonomy” program this year in which principals were given a set amount of cash per student and allowed to spend the money in any way they thought made sense for their school.

Now, that same method is expanding to every traditional school in the district on the theory that principals know what their schools need — not central office administrators.

“Once we give the dollars, it’s really about the use of those dollars,” said Weston Young, the district’s chief financial manager. “We are trying to … talk about the quality of the decision, the quality of the person, the quality of the resource.”

Autonomy is part of a broader shift in IPS that aims to reduce the role of the central office in daily school management and give principals more control over their buildings.

The program is not related to the “innovation” school program in which schools are turned over to private managers who run their schools independent of the district with non-unionized staff members who are are not IPS employees.

Teachers and staff at autonomous schools still work directly for IPS and are part of district unions. The district will continue to pay some expenses like utility bills and the cost of educating students with special needs. But principals will have full control over their main general education budgets.

Guthrie said the change opened up the choices she could make at School 99.

The new staff that autonomy has enabled her to hire, she said, has helped the school put a new focus on positive rewards for good behavior. And the extra 30 minutes have given teachers more time to plan.

Guthrie said the changes are starting to pay off. The number times students were sent the principal’s office for discipline problems fell from 202 in August to 162 in November, she said.

Attendance is also a lot better, according to Guthrie. Last fall, 53 students missed 10 or more days of school. This year, just 9 students have attendance problems that severe.

Week In Review

Week in review: Controversy about superintendent opening and lawsuits against the state

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Who will be the next superintendent of Detroit schools? The board of education did not grant Alycia Meriweather an interview, but many in Detroit are pushing the board to make her a candidate. Another wrinkle: One of the three finalists withdrew from the competition.

If you were not able to attend Chalkbeat’s kickoff event last Friday, be sure to watch our coverage. You can also view the show here.

Read on for more about Meriweather, mascots, and how school lunches affect test scores.

— Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

Interim chief rejected: Detroit schools superintendent Alycia Meriweather is trying to stay focused on the district’s future, like bringing struggling schools run by the state back into the district, but her departure creates another layer of uncertainty for parents and teachers.

Populist support: Meriweather’s exclusion from the search process has triggered angry reactions on social media. Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the school board to reconsider. And on Wednesday, the union representing Detroit teachers called on the board to give her a shot.

And then there were two: One finalist withdrew, leaving two candidates vying to be Detroit schools superintendent. Both have ties to the area and bring experience from other low-performing districts.  

Opinion: Secretly discussing potential Detroit superintendent candidates and voting behind closed doors to tell 16 schools on the state’s priority list that their contracts may not be renewed was called a disservice to parents and students. One newspaper calls for better accountability and transparency.

Opinion: Another commentator believes Michigan doesn’t have the will to improve its underperforming schools.

Getting that diploma: The state’s graduation rate was down slightly for the class of 2016.  But fewer students are dropping out and instead are continuing school beyond four years.

Who gets the credit: East Detroit is no longer under the control of a state-appointed CEO. Local leaders object to state efforts to credit him with district improvements, which they say happened before he arrived.

Mascot fines: The state superintendent wants the power to fine school districts that refuse to change mascots and logos that are widely seen as offensive.

Lawsuit against the state: Educators, parent groups, and others interested in education sued to stop Michigan from giving $2.5 million to private schools to reimburse them for costs associated with state requirements.

Another lawsuit against the state: Detroit schools officially filed papers to keep the state from forcing the closure of failing schools.

Shuttle bumps: A school transportation system that some Detroit leaders had been exploring for this city faces challenges in Denver. The system won praise from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Pushback: The state board of education spurned a recommendation from Gov. Rick Snyder’s education panel to disband the board, claiming it provides “transparency and continuous oversight” of school policy.  

Transformation: A nonprofit group hopes to transform a neighborhood by turning the former Durfee Elementary and Middle School into a community innovation center.

Eat to learn: One large study shows students at schools that serve lunches from healthier vendors get better test scores.

Harsh measures? A teacher’s aide at a Detroit school has been disciplined after a video appeared to show her throwing a student.

2018

Salazar won’t run in governor’s race featuring strong education storylines

PHOTO: Denver Post File
Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Ken Salazar’s decision not to run for Colorado governor takes one prominent Democrat out of a still-developing campaign that promises to prominently feature public education as an issue.

The former U.S. senator and interior secretary cited family reasons for his decision to sit out the 2018 Democratic primary. Salazar, who is closely involved in raising a granddaughter who has autism, could have been a voice on public education for children with disabilities.

In a Denver Post commentary explaining why isn’t running, Salazar took a broad view of the challenges in education.

“Colorado’s education crisis needs to be solved from pre-kindergarten to college,” Salazar wrote. “It is sad that Colorado has defunded higher education and abandoned the great tradition of leading the nation with our great colleges and universities.”

Salazar’s announcement could set other plans in motion quickly in the Democratic field.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a prominent education reformer, and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg, CEO of Intertech Plastics, have already announced they are running.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Arvada told the Denver Post on Thursday the “chances are very good” he will run, and could declare his candidacy soon.

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy said she is seriously considering running, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder said he has not ruled it out, according to the Post.

Among the Republicans mulling a run: District Attorney George Brauchler, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.