Building Better Schools

How one Indianapolis neighborhood says it can save a struggling school by taking control

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarten students at School 15 were stuck inside for recess because of damp and rainy weather.

Residents on the near east side of Indianapolis have worked hundreds of hours, held dozens of meetings and spent over $100,000 in the last year on an ambitious project: Planning a new future for their struggling neighborhood school.

Now, leaders are on the cusp of finding out whether their plan will be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board. If it wins support, it could be the first neighborhood-led effort to create an IPS innovation school, offering a model for other community groups across the city.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Neighbors who have a stake in the success of School 15 would have control, said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, which is one of the community groups behind the plan.

“That really creates a different kind of context when you are making decisions in terms of staffing, in terms of the structure of the school,” he said. “There is a direct accountability that we all hold.”

Their vision for the school includes new staff, a longer year and more support for struggling families. But at its core, the planners are looking to create a traditional, thriving neighborhood school, where families can walk and parents play an essential role.

School 15 has lots of challenges. Last year, 32 percent of students were learning English and 87 percent were poor enough to get subsidized meals. Many families at the school have unstable housing, so students leave and new kids enroll throughout the year. The school has struggled academically for years, and it received an F from the state in 2016.

Community leaders are betting, however, that they can turn the school around by improving academics, making life more stable for current families and drawing in neighborhood parents who are choosing other schools.

If the proposal to convert School 15 to an innovation school is approved, it would be led by Principal Ross Pippin, a long-time teacher who took the helm last spring. But it would be overseen by a new nonprofit that would make decisions on everything from spending to the calendar and curriculum. The nonprofit would also employ most of the teachers, who would not be part of the district union.

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Ross Pippin took over leadership at School 15 last spring. He joined the school as a teacher in 2008.

Innovation schools have most of the independence of charter schools but they are still considered part of the district. Since the Indiana legislature created innovation schools three years ago, the district has converted a handful of schools to innovation status. But most of those are managed by outside charter operators. School 15 would be the first innovation school planned by local leaders — notably from the Boner Center and Englewood Christian Church, which is active in community development.

One reason Taylor and others embraced the idea of creating their own innovation school was precisely to avoid a school “restart” led by an outside manager. School 15 has grappled with low test scores for several years — even landing on a federal warning list over a decade ago — and as IPS moves to radically overhaul failing schools, its future is uncertain, Taylor said.

“A lot of the most strongly pro (traditional) public school advocates that we have in our neighborhood are the ones that are driving this planning on the innovation school because they knew change was coming,” Taylor said. “Either we lead and help guide and help shape what that change is going to look like or it’s going to happen to us.”

Their plan for improving the long-struggling school includes extending the school day, creating new blocks of time for teachers to collaborate and adding a second educator to many classrooms. There will also be on-site staff from the Boner Center — the community center already provides services to many families in the area — who will help parents with challenges like finding jobs or getting stable housing.

Shiwanda Brown, a member of the nonprofit board, said that she hopes a neighborhood innovation school will attract staff who are more committed and that there is less teacher and principal turnover. Brown sent two daughters to School 15, her youngest finished last year, and she said keeping staff has been on ongoing challenge.

“(We want to) make sure the teachers that come on board are … there because they want to be there — they are there because they love to do what they are doing,” Brown said.

Creating a community-led school is a steep challenge. Over the past year, the group has spent hundreds of hours and about $100,000 in grant funding on forming a nonprofit, applying for federal funding and reaching out to families, Taylor said. But the near eastside neighborhood around School 15 is unusually well prepared for this kind of work, and several leaders involved with the effort were already working together on plans to revitalize the neighborhood.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A mural brings a spark of color to an empty lot across the street from Englewood Christian Church. The church runs a community development corporation that has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood around School 15.

It’s also a diverse community, with many stable, middle-class families that could help School 15 thrive. But as it stands, those parents often aren’t choosing their neighborhood school, instead opting for magnet or charter schools. The hope is that as an innovation school, it will be able to attract some of those families.

Taylor said that School 15 will be a “much healthier” school regardless of whether it is able to attract those families. But the aim is to create a school that is so successful that all kinds of families want to enroll.

“Our belief is that if we do our work well and if we do it right, those issues will take care of themselves,” he said.

The proposal for School 15 is already attracting interest from local parents — and sparking conversation.

Principal Pippin, who become involved when leaders were first fleshing out the idea of a neighborhood-run school, said that parents who don’t currently have kids at the school have been contacting them to learn about the proposal and stopping by for tours.

“For some reason, they didn’t think Thomas Gregg (School 15) was an option, but they see innovation as suddenly, now the school becomes an option for their family,” Pippin said. “The neighborhood’s excitement about the potential has really been not just surprising but exciting to me.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Kindergarteners serve paper breakfast at School 15.

April Adams, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood and worships at Englewood Christian Church, said that fellow congregants have started to ask for advice on whether to choose School 15. Although they are interested, they are also afraid that there might be better options for their children.

But Adams, who is pregnant, said that she and her husband are already planning on sending their children to School 15. She also hopes to work at the school eventually.

“It can’t just be one type of family that’s going to School 15,” Adams said. “If we are going to make this a community school, then the community needs to be invested.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”