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.

the whole child

Denver named recipient of national grant to boost social and emotional learning

An afterschool program at Denver's Ashley Elementary School. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“Be a Friend. Be a Learner. You own it.”

These three principles — referred to as the FLY values — guide students and staff at Samuels Elementary in southeast Denver, where Principal Cesar Rivera believes that an emphasis on social and emotional learning is crucial for student success.

Now, thanks to a national grant, Rivera will have new resources to establish social and emotional learning practices such as staff trainings and run an on-site student wellness center.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Afterschool Alliance are recipients of a new four-year grant for public schools and after-school programs that aims to bolster social and emotional learning, which focuses on skills like controlling emotions, solving conflicts and building relationships.

Six U.S. cities were chosen to participate in the first-ever Social and Emotional Learning Initiative sponsored by the New York-based Wallace Foundation.

Gigi Antoni, director of learning and enrichment services at the Wallace Foundation, said Denver was selected because of its previous commitment to social and emotional learning and strong partnership between DPS and its after-school programming providers such as the city’s parks and recreation department, YMCA of Metro Denver and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

“We know a lot about how important social and emotional learning is to students’ success both in school and in life,” Antoni said. “But what we don’t know a lot about is what it takes for large school districts and communities to align and build really rich social emotional learning environments for children (together).

With the grant funds, DPS will hire an initiative manager who will oversee a team of coaches that will conduct trainings and help bring social and emotional learning curricula to six elementary schools and after-school partners.

The elementary schools — Samuels, Cowell, Swansea, Trevista, Newlon and Force  — were chosen by DPS to encompass a wide swath of the city, as well as target those with strong after-school partnerships and displayed commitment to social and emotional learning.

In the program’s first year, DPS and the Afterschool Alliance will receive between $1 million and $1.5 million to distribute across the elementary schools and their out-of-school partners. The first year of the partnership will predominately focus on teacher and staff training for everyone from bus drivers and custodial staff to senior administrators.

The objective is to encourage school staff to be consistent about providing social and emotional support throughout the day, from when kids first board the bus to school to when their out-of-school programming ends, said Katherine Plog-Martinez, executive director of DPS’s whole child team, which oversees mental health staff, social emotional learning and school health initiatives.

“We hope that in these schools the school teams really come to see and value and respect the role that every adult in the building plays in achieving the social emotional outcomes of the students,” she said.

Plog-Martinez said she hopes that other schools will want to adopt similar strategies after the grant period ends.

The co-location situation

Do charter schools hurt their neighboring schools? A new study of New York City schools says no — they help.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A scene from a 2013 Panel for Educational Policy meeting where the city approved dozens of co-location plans that are now under legal dispute.

Far from hurting existing schools, new charter schools in New York City have actually helped their neighbors improve, according to a new study.

The study’s surprising conclusion adds some hard data to a divisive debate: Do the privately operated yet publicly funded institutions sap resources and hurt traditional public schools? Or do they exert competitive pressure that lifts all boats?

The answer, at least in New York City, is that traditional public schools should want to be as close as possible to multiple charter schools, and ideally share a building with one.

The study finds that being closer to a charter school led to small increases in math and reading scores, boosts in reported student engagement and school safety, and fewer students being held back a grade. The test score gains increased slightly more in traditional public schools that are co-located with a charter.

Sarah Cordes, a professor at Temple University and the study’s author, suspects that her findings are the result of the competition stoked by charters.

“I think having that close a proximity might really get administrators to get their act together,” she said. “Part of it is just that it’s really hard to ignore a charter school in your building”

The peer-reviewed study, set to be published in the journal Education Finance and Policy, is based on student-level data from nearly 900,000 third- through fifth-graders between 1996 and 2010. Cordes’s method takes advantage of the timing of when new charter schools opened to isolate their effect on nearby district schools, using performance before and after the charter opens.

A school within a half-mile of a charter school, for instance, saw significant bumps in math and reading scores — estimates that are boosted with greater numbers of nearby charter schools, and schools from “high quality” charter networks such as Success Academy or KIPP.

Test score bumps at traditional public schools were even more pronounced in cases where they occupied the same buildings as charter schools — an arrangement that has drawn intense criticism from many educators and parents, and which often forces the schools to share resources like cafeteria and gym space.

Cordes’s results are consistent with previous research from other districts, which have typically pointed to either neutral or slightly positive test score effects of charter schools on their neighbors.

The critics get something from the study, too: evidence that existing schools do lose some students when charters open nearby. When a charter was between one-half to one mile from a district school, for instance, the district school tended to lose roughly 16 general education students. But Cordes concluded that the population changes weren’t big enough to influence test scores.

So why do the city’s charter schools boost their neighbors’ performance?

One reason, Cordes says, is that the charter sector is working as it was intended: creating pressure on administrators to improve the quality of their schools.

Based on survey data collected by the city, she found that parents reported significantly higher levels of student engagement, and those with children in co-located schools were less likely to describe their schools as unsafe. Teachers reported higher academic expectations and “more respect and cleanliness” after a nearby charter school opened.

Cordes also points to the budgetary effects of charter schools. Somewhat paradoxically, given charter critics’ arguments, competition from charter schools led to more average spending per student at traditional schools — between 2 percent for schools that are further away to 9 percent for co-located schools.

Though she did not look at whether decreases in enrollment had adverse effects on programming that wouldn’t be measured by reading and math test scores or survey data, Cordes said future research should look at whether enrollment drops lead to smaller class sizes, which have been shown to boost learning.