Building Better Schools

How one Indianapolis neighborhood says they can save their 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.”

Headlines

Week in review: “Horrible outcomes” vs. “false news”

 

Today’s the day that struggling schools across the state have been dreading for months. At 11 a.m., the state education department plans to release its annual top-to-bottom school ranking, which the state school reform office will use to decide which schools could be shuttered for poor performance.

The difficult news, which is likely to be drowned out by coverage of Donald Trump’s inauguration, caps a busy week that included Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address and the Senate nomination hearing for Betsy DeVos. Detroit schools took a bit of a beating during the DeVos hearing as Democrats tied Trump’s chosen education secretary to “horrible” outcomes in Detroit schools. DeVos pushed back saying “a lot has gone right” in Detroit schools. She knocked claims that poor results are related to lax charter school oversight as “false news.”

“I think it is important to put Detroit in context. In 1950, there were 1.8 million people living in the city of Detroit. Today there is less than 700,000 … Anyone with any means in the city of Detroit has basically left the city.”

— Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education

Read on for more on the hearing, the State of the State address and the rest of the week’s headlines. Also stay tuned for next week, when we’ll have some exciting news of our own.

The hearing

The DeVos hearing was marked by sharp partisan division as Democrats griped that they weren’t given enough time to question someone they deemed unqualified for the nation’s top education job. But DeVos made it clear in more than three hours of testimony that more time would not likely have produced more insight. She offered few policy specifics beyond reiterating her support for giving parents control over education. Here’s what we learned (and what we didn’t) during the hearing. (Our roundup was co-published this week by FiveThirtyEight).

For Detroiters, the most interesting exchange came between DeVos and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent who says his city does a much better job of holding charter schools accountable than Detroit does.

Bennet says he supports charter schools — but only if they work. “There’s no practical difference between being forced to attend a terrible school and being given a chance to attend the choice of five terrible schools,” he said.

There’s a lot of ideology on both sides of the DeVos/Detroit debate. Here’s some facts to help sort it out.

A Senate committee is planning to vote on DeVos on Tuesday but, whether or not she gets the job, these crucial education issues will largely be decided by the states.

If you missed the hearing, here’s a transcript. (Search for the word ‘Detroit’)

State of the State

Education was not a major topic during Snyder’s seventh State of the State address but the Detroit News speculated that he might be holding out for an imminent report from an education commission he appointed last year. “Hopefully it will contain meaningful suggestions,” the paper wrote.

During the speech, Snyder made no reference to the looming school closings that are expected from his office today.

The Free Press noted that the speech had many notable omissions. Among them: There was no mention of school funding or of the report last year that found many school districts don’t get enough money from the state.

Snyder did mention the new Detroit school board, which he encouraged to be “laser-focused on the kids learning with an emphasis on prudent financial management.”

He also announced a push to improve computer science education to prepare kids for high-tech jobs. “Think about your schools in your area and think about what they’re teaching,” he said. “We have a huge gap. We need to close that gap. And so I look forward to creating a work group to work with the legislature and the superintendent on coming up with great ideas about how to encourage more of this. And you’re going to find us willing to make investments.”

In other news

  • News of dreaded school closings is expected today — two days after teachers at one troubled high school rallied to keep their school open.
  • Today will be the last time the state releases its top-to-bottom school ranking. Schools will soon be judged instead by an A to F letter grade system.
  • The city of Detroit has joined the federal lawsuit that claims the state of the city’s schools violates children’s constitutional rights.
  • A lawsuit over Detroit school janitors could cost taxpayers $31 million.
  • A parent leader has this message for Detroit’s new school board.
  • On MLK Day, a Detroit high school created an exhibit to document racial prejudice and violence.
  • A historic Detroit high school has been repeatedly vandalized since it closed in 2012.
  • A Detroit charter school has locked down its Corktown building.
  • Public school supporters rallied in cities around the country as part of a nationwide demonstration.
  • A troubled suburban district is seeking community input on plans to overhaul academics.
  • A state Republican lawmaker makes a case for transferring state and federal education dollars into parent-controlled Education Savings Accounts.
  • An education advocate notes that Trump’s plan to put more education decisions in the hands of states ramps up pressure on Michigan leaders to focus on equity and excellence in schools. She called on the state to rethink its approach to early literacy, school funding and accountability and other key priorities.
  • A teachers union leader says low pay and difficult teaching conditions are to blame for an acute substitute teacher shortage.
  • A Michigan teacher has come under fire for refusing to allow his students to watch Trump’s inauguration address during class.

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.