Future of Schools

State Board divisions pop to the surface

Simmering philosophical differences on the State Board of Education bubbled up Wednesday as members tried to work through a list of priorities for the 2013 legislative session.

State Board of Education meeting
State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman (in lavender sweater at left) sits in the audience after leaving the board table because of a disagreement with other members over legislative goals.

At the peak of the discussion, member Elaine Gantz Berman got up from the board table and left the room. She returned a few minutes later but sat in the audience section for a time and then left the meeting for good before it concluded.

Before she left the board table, Berman said, “Let’s cut this off. This is such an unproductive conversation. We’re embarrassing ourselves. … I’m ashamed of this board. Nobody cares what this board thinks. … Why have legislative priorities? We’re completely ideologically opposed to each other. … I’m taking a break. I’m getting out of here.”

When Berman exited, the board was about 45 minutes into a discussion of its proposed priorities for next year’s legislative session. Most of the time was spent on goals related to school finance and teacher quality, issues on which board members have disagreed before.

The board has four Republican and three Democratic members, but member differences aren’t necessarily partisan. Rather, differing philosophies about education are what divide the group.

Berman and fellow Democrats Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff are generally supportive of increased school funding and of education reforms such as the new educator evaluation system. They also support the greater state regulatory role that’s been created by recent reform legislation.

Three Republican members, Debora Scheffel, Paul Lundeen and chair Bob Schaffer, are by no means defenders of the educational status quo but are skeptical about whether more money and more state regulation are the way to improve schools. All three are strong advocates of parent choice as a free-market way to improve schools. The three also are skeptical about the active federal role in education under the Democratic Obama administration.

The board’s fourth Republican, Marcia Neal, often takes something of a middle ground.

All of the members are a bit sensitive about their role in education policymaking. Most of Colorado’s major education initiatives in recent years have come from the governor’s office or key legislators.

Board differences were on display last month during a discussion of teacher licensing. A report presented to the board recommended that license renewal be tied to teacher evaluation results. (See story.)

Wednesday, Lundeen talked extensively about school finance, saying that funding needs to be tied to schools’ ability to improve student achievement: “Money needs to follow success.”

Lundeen also referred to “shopworn language in the education space about more resources. … I don’t want to just keep talking about more resources.” He also indicated his preference for funneling money through parents – the word “vouchers” wasn’t used – rather than to schools.

When the conversation turned to educator quality, last month’s discussion about licensing picked back up, and Berman left during the middle of it. After she left, Schaffer said, “I frankly want a high bar” to entering teaching. “I prefer that it be at the hiring end … rather than at the state bureaucracy level.”

Despite their philosophical differences, state board members generally are cordial and at ease with each other during meetings, and discussions remain civil.

Berman returned to the room within five minutes, but she pointedly sat in the audience and didn’t participate. A few minutes after that, Scheffel asked, “Might we invite Elaine back to the table?” Berman didn’t move.

A short time later, after Schaffer called a break, Berman returned to the board table and began packing up her laptop. Scheffel came over to her, and the two talked for a moment before embracing. Then Berman left for good.

The board made some minor tweaks to the draft of the legislative priorities but left the rest of the discussion, and a vote, to its Nov. 14 meeting.

At the very end of the meeting, long after Berman had left, Scheffel raised another touchy subject – the Common Core Standards in English and math that the board adopted on a split vote in 2010. Scheffel, noting growing discussion in parts of the education world about whether those standards are a good thing, asked if the state board should have a full-blown discussion of the issue before the end of the year.

Members casually kicked the issue around for a while but made no decision.

Although the Common Core Standards were not developed by the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education has made state adoption of Common Core a requirement for waivers from the No Child Left Behind law. But some conservatives see the Common Core as one more example of federal intrusion into education.

About the State Board of Education

Board members are elected on a partisan basis from the state’s congressional districts. Here’s a list of member districts:

  • Elaine Gantz Berman – 1st District – Denver
  • Angelika Schroeder – 2nd District – Northern Colorado, centered on Boulder
  • Marcia Neal – 3rd District – Western Colorado plus Pueblo
  • Bob Schaffer – 4th District – Eastern Colorado plus Fort Collins area
  • Paul Lundeen – 5th District – Colorado Springs area
  • Debora Scheffel – 6th District – Southern Metro area
  • Jane Goff – 7th District – Northern, Western Metro area

Changing district lines

  • District lines are changing with the Nov. 6 election. Schroeder is running for reelection in a 2nd District that now includes Fort Collins. Schaffer is not running, and Republican Pamela Mazanec of Douglas County is unopposed in the new 4th District. So the state board will continue to have a GOP majority even if Schroeder is reelected.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response:

Future of Schools

Short on students, 3 Indianapolis charter schools are closing. But 6 more will open in the fall

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Three Indianapolis charter schools facing financial struggles will close at the end of this school year, underscoring just how difficult it can be for charter schools to create sustainable operations.

As another sign of charter schools’ cash crunch, particularly in the city’s increasingly competitive school choice market, longtime Indianapolis charter network Tindley will merge its all-boys and all-girls middle schools into a single coeducational location.

Still, even as some schools close and consolidate, six more charter schools are poised to open in Indianapolis for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — including two that will be tasked with “restarting” schools within Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation schools.

In many parts of the city, the proliferation of charter schools is pushing the school choice conversation beyond simply providing more options to focusing on the quality of those options.

According to state data, nearly 17,000 students who live in Marion County — almost 11 percent — attend charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Across the state, charter schools are the fastest-growing school option, though they mostly serve urban areas.

Read more: How are Indiana charter schools doing? 9 things to know from the state’s first study

CLOSING: CARPE DIEM NORTHWEST

Among those shuttering schools are two that focused on blended learning. Carpe Diem Northwest, the national chain’s only remaining campus in the city, will shut its doors, the state charter school board said.

According to the Indiana Charter School Board, Carpe Diem’s board voted to close the school in March. The school’s principal and board president did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.

According to state data, 218 students were enrolled at Carpe Diem Northwest this year in grades 6-12 — an uptick likely due to the chain merging its former three campuses into one location. Consolidation efforts started in 2016, when Carpe Diem closed its Shadeland campus amid low enrollment. The chain’s Meridian Street campus lost its charter last year after struggling with academic problems, low enrollment, and financial instability.

CLOSING: NEXUS ACADEMY

Nexus Academy, which shared a building with the Glendale library branch, will also close this summer after a drawn-out attempt to stay open as curriculum providers pulled out of the school.

The school used blended learning to serve students who sought an alternative school environment, such as students with disabilities, students who didn’t succeed in conventional classroom settings, or students pursuing professional athletics or acting.

Nexus Academy had initially announced it would be closing at the end of the last school year, said board president Debra Morgan, when online K-12 management company Connections decided to close all of its Nexus Academy locations across three states.

But local leaders in Indianapolis wanted to keep the school open, so they began searching for a new management company. They were able to arrange a trilateral agreement with Connections and a new provider, California-based iLEAD Schools.

Still, Nexus Academy principal Jamie Brady said, “It was at the 13th hour, and it was too little, too late.”

Students had found other schools, and teachers had found other jobs. Marketing efforts to increase enrollment fell short, Brady said, and the school re-opened late in the year with too few students.

Earlier this spring, state charter officials deferred renewing Nexus Academy’s expiring charter. But before the school could return to make its case again, Brady and Morgan said iLEAD Schools also decided it could not help Nexus Academy, leading the school of about 25 students to close.

CLOSING: INDIANA COLLEGE PREP

A third school, the highly troubled Indiana College Preparatory School, will close after the mayor’s office ordered the school to shut down. The company running the school had stopped communicating with the mayor’s office, and the entire school board had resigned.

Read more: In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

CLOSING: HOOSIER ACADEMY VIRTUAL

Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, a statewide full-time virtual charter school that enrolls students from Indianapolis, is also closing after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Read more: After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June

CONSOLIDATING: TINDLEY MIDDLE SCHOOLS

Among Tindley’s local chain of six schools, its two middle schools will drop their single-gender programming to merge into one co-educational school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said the decision was in part financial, driven by declining enrollment. As charter school competition has increased, she said it was harder to attract students to the all-girls Tindley Collegiate Academy and all-boys Tindley Preparatory Academy.

Families also said the bridge into high school was more difficult for students who went to single-gender middle schools, Marshall said.

The merged middle schools will operate under the Tindley Collegiate name and use Tindley Prep’s building, next door to Tindley Renaissance, its feeder elementary school.

OPENING: ALLEGIANT PREP AND VANGUARD

A pair of charter schools will open on Indianapolis’ westside to focus on students in the Haughville area, each school founded by Building Excellent Schools fellows.

Allegiant Preparatory Academy will grow into a K-8 college preparatory school with a particular focus on literacy, led by Indianapolis native Rick Anderson. The first week of school will be devoted to teaching students about Allegiant’s culture and core values. Students will begin making college visits in kindergarten and first grade, and the school will also work with families on how to support students on their paths to college.

Allegiant is built upon the motto that “it takes a village” to ensure students’ successes.

“We’re all saying that we have our hands on the shoulder of this child, and we are going to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re learning, and that they’re also growing as leaders,” Anderson said.

At Vanguard Collegiate of Indianapolis, school founder Rob Marshall — also an Indianapolis native — wants to incorporate the school with the Haughville neighborhood, with students completing service learning and projects based on the needs of the community.

The school, located in the former IPS School 75 building, is specifically seeking to help low-income students who live nearby, and Marshall said his leadership team is intentionally composed of people coming from backgrounds similar to their students.

“We know these students can achieve,” he said. “They just need the right adult that understands the circumstances and is willing to build the relationships.”

Vanguard will be “unapologetically” college prep-focused, Marshall added, with mandatory tutoring at the end of school that helps students with whatever they may have struggled with in that day’s lessons.

Both schools say they expect to ramp up enrollment efforts this summer.

OPENING: PILOTED SCHOOLS

PilotED started as after-school programs in Chicago, and now it’s turning into a new school in Fountain Square, in the former home of Indiana Math and Science Academy South and IPS School 64.

PilotED is focused on social identity, asking both teachers and students to examine difficult questions about power and privilege. The school incorporates social justice and racial equity into academics.

School co-founder and The Mind Trust fellow Jacob Allen said he hopes the model does more than prepare students academically for college — he wants it to position students to persist and graduate, particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Allen also said the school wants to pay attention to teacher development and perks, including providing a mental health stipend, a staff gym, and co-working space.

OPENING: PARAMOUNT’S SECOND CAMPUS

Paramount School of Excellence is expanding to a second location about two miles away from its flagship eastside campus. Paramount Community Heights will serve students in grades K-4.

TURNAROUND: MATCHBOOK LEARNING

Matchbook Learning, a turnaround operator with a troubled history, will restart IPS School 63 on the westside as an innovation school. The charter school uses software to help teachers track students’ progress, a model that Matchbook founder and The Mind Trust fellow Sajan George hopes will lead to dramatic test score gains.

Read more: Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

TURNAROUND: URBAN ACT ACADEMY

URBAN ACT, led by The Mind Trust fellow Nigena Livingston, will restart IPS School 14, a downtown school that has long served many students who are homeless. She plans to use “place-based learning,” a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

Read more: Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up