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.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.