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Jeffrey Berry, Tiffany Thomas and Darius Sawyers receive applause after being named as winners at Teach Plus' InnovatEd conference.

Jeffrey Berry, Tiffany Thomas and Darius Sawyers receive applause after being named as winners at Teach Plus’ InnovatEd conference.

Shaina Cavazos

Kids get to keep their business profits under winning school plan

A charter school that would let students create their own businesses and keep the profits was a money-winning idea at an innovation fair Sunday that three teachers hope will become a reality next fall.

The idea for the school, created by teachers Tiffany Thomas, Darius Sawyers and Jeffrey Berry, won at InnovatED, an event put on by the Indianapolis chapter of the national teacher advocacy group Teach Plus and education reform group The Mind Trust last weekend aimed at designing new schools. The group will split a $5,000 prize, and two of its members hope to bring the idea to the mayor’s charter school board this spring.

The teachers based their school on the biggest problem they see in education today, nationally and across Indianapolis: kids just aren’t connected to what they’re learning, and they can’t see how what they’re doing is relevant to their lives beyond high school.

“I think our idea is so innovative because it solves so many secondary issues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with school,” Sawyers, a high school science teacher at Fall Creek Academy, said.

The school’s design incorporates a few key programs that try to address the needs of high-poverty students. First, an Illinois company called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities pairs eligible students with mentors from the business community to design original businesses then launch and showcase them at a trade show at the end of the year. Students keep what they earn, which offers their families some financial support.

Although the school pays a fee to participate with CEO, the company raises money locally and pays its own way. Students can see a real-world application of what they’re learning, and the school doesn’t bear an additional cost.

Following an early college academy model

The school also models part of its structure off Dayton Early College Academy, a charter high school in Ohio that establishes six “milestones” students must complete during high school, including community service hours, research projects, job shadow opportunities, internships and other academic requirements. To pass each step,  students must present to and be approved by a panel of educators and community members. As a result, students do not follow traditional grade levels.

Finally, the school connects each student to a network of teachers, adults and other community members through the job shadows and internships. This advisory group would give students support in and out of school, which makes it more likely that they succeed, Thomas, a French teacher at Broad Ripple High School, said.

Her idea to blend these different programs came from presentations she saw at an education conference at the University of Indianapolis.

“I saw the DECA program present and the CEO program present and listening to them got me reinvigorated, got me excited again,” Thomas said. “Hearing from the (DECA) kids themselves really was everything. I was looking at those kids and thinking, ‘Those are our kids … they’re dealing with the same population and the same problems, but they’re having great success.'”

The school in Dayton looks similar to many in Indianapolis: Of its 436 students, about 90 percent are black or Hispanic and 80 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $43,500 or less. But data from Ohio’s state tests last year showed 100 percent of juniors passed in every subject on a state test, and more than 95 percent of sophomores passed.

To gain traction in Indianapolis, Thomas has been forging partnerships with local K-8 charter schools that don’t have direct feeder high schools. The goal is to locate the school on the city’s east side, where Thomas plans to visit apartment complexes to share information about the concept with families.

Casey Patterson, an InnovatED judge, said the winning group showed a level of research, commitment to academic rigor and fundraising know-how that put it above the others.

“I think they had a better idea of where they are heading and what students need,” said Patterson, a former Teach Plus executive director and principal from Brownsburg. “Yes, they need to be engaged. Yes, they need to like school. But they had an understanding that you need to hold kids to high academic achievement.”

Bringing community resources to needy children

Participants at the conference also chose a second winning idea, a community resource center in Avon, that received $3,000. Katie Mitchell, a special education teacher at White Oak Elementary School, said her group’s idea was born out of the demographic shifts happening in her community.

More students are coming from low-income families, she said, and the community doesn’t have the resources to fully to support them, in and out of school. Although she acknowledged that her school isn’t facing the same challenges as schools in Indianapolis, she said that the community has virtually no support services available, so they want to be proactive in addressing problems as they occur.

“It’s not a topic that people are talking a whole lot about yet,” Mitchell said. “As teachers, we see it coming, we’re starting to see those students. Our idea isn’t innovative for the nation, but it is for our area and the population we’re serving.”

Mitchell said she and her colleagues will use the money to develop a pilot for the center in one of the district’s unused trailers. At the center families can learn how to help their kids with homework and receive other services, such as food, clothing, counseling and access computers and Internet. The center will also host workshops for parents on new academic standards, CPR training, GED classes or English-language classes.

Last year, the school created a neighborhood initiative called Traveling Teachers, which sent teachers out into the community to form relationships with families. The center would be a way to expand on those efforts.