Movers and Shakers

Newest member of Indianapolis school board says “I have two ears and I am willing to listen”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Dorene Rodriguez Hoops

As the newest member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, Dorene Rodriguez Hoops has first-hand experience with many of the challenges families face. She is a first-generation Mexican American and a fluent Spanish speaker. She is the mother of a son with special needs. And she is the only current IPS parent on the board.

But Hoops, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, is reluctant to take on the mantle of spokesperson.

“I was appointed, and so I’m very aware of that too. I wasn’t elected by my district,” she said. “I am all these things, right — I am a parent; I am Spanish speaking; I am a parent with a special needs child; I am a woman. But more than anything, I have two ears and I am willing to listen.”

Hoops background reflects that of many in this country who feel their voices are not being heard by the new administration. But Hoops, who has long been interested in education, said President Donald Trump’s victory didn’t impact her decision to apply for the seat.

“My thinking is to try to be my best as a commissioner, and everyone else can decide how the different facets of me impact that,” said Hoops, who represents District 5, which runs along the the northwest corridor of the city.

Hoops’ interest in education stems from her own background as a student. She was raised by her mother, a single parent who emigrated from Mexico. As a child growing up in California, her mother worked 12-hour days at a restaurant to save up enough to buy a home and send her daughter to Catholic school. But Hoops always knew she would go to college.

“She really impressed upon me, school, school, school, even though she had at best a second- or third-grade education,” Hoops said. “To her, education was like my opportunity.”

Hoops did so well at University of California Davis that she won a full-ride scholarship for a masters in public policy at University of Michigan, and over a 13-year career in human resources, she rose to vice-president of a nonprofit with 600 employees. But when she and her husband realized their young son Cannon, who has cerebral palsy, would need dedicated care, Hoops decided to leave her job. Over the last decade, she has focused on raising Cannon, who is 12-years-old, and their four-year-old daughter, Avalon.

When Hoops and her family moved to Indianapolis in 2011, they enrolled Cannon at Center for Inquiry School 27. As the parent of a child with special needs, she has become an amateur expert at navigating the school system. She meets with a team of educators regularly to plan for his schooling and make sure he has the tools and assistance he needs to thrive. And she is so informed about the process that she has helped other parents access the resources available for students.

As a parent at School 27, Hoops has been an active member of the Parent Student Teacher Association. She helps recruit parents for the group, said Nailah Rowan, who is vice-president. And she was an essential advocate for redoing the nearby park.

Rowan said that she has the temperament to mediate contentious issues and recognize what problems are serious enough to need attention.

“She’s a very compassionate person, and she’s really understanding,” Rowan said.

Although she has a background in public policy, Hoops is not yet an education “policy wonk,” she said. But she’s been an attentive watcher of the district, and she is supportive of administration plans to give principals more flexibility and to partner with charter schools.

“These charter schools exist in the community,” she said. “The idea makes sense that you want to as a district to cooperate and work with them and learn from them.”

what happened?

Memphis parents demand answers on charter school principal’s abrupt departure

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
About 20 parents and parent supporters crowded a conference room at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences to demand answers about the high school principal's abrupt departure.

About 20 Memphis parents and their supporters lined a small conference room after being initially blocked from a charter school’s board meeting to learn more about why a beloved principal was gone eight days into the school year.

The answers were not clear, and after an hour of sometimes heated exchanges, advocates threatened to encourage parents to pull their children out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, the high school Reginald Williams ran for four years.

Williams’ last day was Friday, Aug. 10. Parents said a letter sent home with students on Monday, Aug. 13, announced the principal had resigned. But on a speaker phone during the meeting, Williams said he did not resign. Corey Johnson, the school’s executive director, said Williams’ departure was a “mutual agreement.”

“We cannot speak on what happened with Brother Williams, OK? So, let’s move on,” board chair Michael Dexter told parents.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange shows off a wall of students with high scores on the college readiness test.

Parent Eric Jackson followed up with a question that was met with eight long seconds of silence from board members.

“Are we allowed the opportunity, or is he allowed the opportunity, without reprisal, to tell us, if I get in contact with him, what happened?”

Patricia Ange, a Memphis Academy teacher who prepares students to take the ACT college readiness test, then called Williams during the meeting and put him on speaker for everyone in the room to hear.

Williams said the board’s decision to fire him was their choice. But he said, “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.” Williams, a former principal at Kirby High School and assistant principal at Central High School, added, “Now I’ve got to draw unemployment.”

“So, you did not resign, sir?” Ange asked as parents hushed each other to listen for the answer.

“No,” Williams said to parents’ amazement.

Williams said he had planned to retire in May, and was not told why he was fired, but suspected negative state test scores were a factor.

TNReady test scores at the 15-year-old high school in North Memphis declined in every subject last school year. For example, 6.2 percent of students were considered on grade-level by the state compared to 33.6 the previous year.

Williams blamed the charter network’s late purchase of laptops, which prevented students from practicing online, and the myriad technical problems with the state test this spring. State lawmakers banned using the scores in decisions to hire, fire, or compensate educators, and only allowed school boards to use them for up to 15 percent of a student’s grade.

Johnson maintained the decision for Williams’ departure was mutual and that he “wanted to support him in his decision” to retire earlier than planned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences is a 15-year-old charter school in North Memphis.

Memphis Academy, which enrolls about 400 students, was one of the first schools chartered by the Memphis school district. It was founded by the nonprofit group 100 Black Men of Memphis. Inc.

Charter schools in Tennessee are funded by public money, but nonprofit boards of directors run the schools. The schools are overseen by local districts or the state — in this case, Shelby County Schools. State law states that board meetings are open to the public.

But Sarah Carpenter, leader of the parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the board blocked access to the regular quarterly meeting for about 30 minutes. Dexter said there was confusion about when to allow parents inside. He initially wanted to wait until after board members approved minutes from the previous meeting, but after reviewing the board’s bylaws, he allowed parents to enter.

Dexter said one of his goals for the school year was to form parent committees to work with the board. Parents present at the meeting said the effort was too little, too late.

“I can’t believe you don’t know what’s going on,” parent Golding Calix told board members through a translator. “You say you’re listening, but are you going to do something?”

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”