Future of Schools

Dougco moves ahead with voucher charter

Updated July 21 – Douglas County officials will not appear before the State Board of Education in August. Instead, state officials have told the district that, because the waivers they’re seeking for the new charter are automatic under state law, a letter of notification is sufficient. This story reflects the change.

CASTLE ROCK – As expected, Douglas County school board members on Tuesday gave the final nod of approval to a charter school that will serve as the administrative home of students with vouchers.

Douglas County school board member Craig Richardson
Dougco school board member Craig Richardson

School board members voted unanimously June 27 to create the Choice Scholarship School but made that approval contingent upon a review of its charter school application by the district’s accountability committee.

With committee members’ comments in hand and a tweaked application, school board members voted to move ahead with the next step in the voucher pilot, formally known as the Choice Scholarship Program. The vote was 5-0, with two board members absent.

Some charter school leaders have criticized the use of the state’s charter law to implement the pilot. Yet neither that criticism nor multiple legal efforts to halt the voucher plan appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of Dougco school board members.

“I think this is a momentous time in the life of our Choice Scholarship Program,” board member Craig Richardson said before Tuesday’s vote. “I’m excited about this next step in our deployment of that program.”

The charter school needs one more stamp of approval but it’s procedural. Dougco officials are asking for a series of automatic waivers, typical of charters, and must notify the Colorado Department of Education of those they’re seeking. In return, state officials respond with a letter indicating receipt of the notification.

‘Nothing like this has been done anywhere’

Charter schools are usually created by outside groups – from parents to for-profit companies – who want to offer an alternative to traditional neighborhood schools. They form a board of directors, submit lengthy applications to school districts and plead for approval before school boards.

But the Dougco charter is different. District administrators wrote the application at the direction of the school board, which waived the usual application timeline and, on Tuesday, appointed the charter’s first board of directors. It consists of three parents of voucher students and two community members, including Ben DeGrow, an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute.

Even more unusual is that the voucher charter won’t have teachers or classrooms. Instead, up to 500 students will enroll in the school but they’ll take their vouchers totaling $4,575 in public funds – and their backpacks – to private schools.

By creating a charter, Dougco gets a state-assigned school number for funding purposes and can more easily track the attendance and testing of its voucher students. In the resolution approved Tuesday, the charter is described as “the most efficient way” of managing the pilot.

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere,” Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said last week. “There is not a pattern for this, we’re creating it.”

Responding to criticism from charter leaders

Using a charter school to implement the voucher pilot has sparked concern from some charter-school leaders.

When EdNews Colorado first wrote about the “voucher charter” concept in March, Alex Medler, who has long been active in the state and national charter movements, commented “this idea is extremely problematic” and “hopefully this is a non-starter.”

And Jim Griffin of the Colorado League of Charter Schools was quoted in the Denver Post as saying the Dougco charter application “just does not meet what we have adopted as quality standards for charter school applications.”

Tuesday, Richardson responded to criticisms that the Dougco voucher charter is a “sham.”

“I think that’s an unfortunate and somewhat shrill description of what may be a very legitimate policy difference,” he said. “Reasonable people can disagree about this …

“I would urge all of us to remember, including our friends in the charter community, this is about – let’s see what works, let’s see what doesn’t work and we’re very, very interested in their views.”

Video highlights from Tuesday’s Douglas County school board meeting

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”