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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here: