Future of Schools

Questions remain as Indiana's NCLB deadline nears

State board member Brad Oliver and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting in December. (Scott Elliott)

Indiana now has less than a month to satisfy U.S. Department of Education concerns that have put it in jeopardy of facing federal sanctions, and some State Board of Education members are getting antsy.

The state board, which demanded answers from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz in a special meeting last month, is expecting another update Wednesday. The contentious issue caused some fireworks at the board’s last meeting and board members say they still want more information directly from Ritz.

“There has been no update, nothing, to the board,” board member Brad Oliver said. “I am going to ask some questions. I want to know what’s been going on. I’m hearing two stories — that everything is OK and that we have serious issues.”

In early May, the U.S. Department of Education sent Indiana a letter giving the state 60 days — to the end of June — to answer a series of concerns in order to reassure federal officials that it had not violated the terms of a 2012 agreement to relax some federal rules.

That deal, or “waiver,” released Indiana from some sanctions of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Law. Most states have received waivers from rules, now widely deemed to be too stringent, that would have required all children to be scoring at grade level on standardized tests by this year.

Federal officials wanted the state to demonstrate how it was meeting the following terms, which the state agreed to as part of its waiver:

  • Indiana’s new standards qualify as “college and career ready”
  • State-administered tests going forward adequately measure the new standards
  • The state’s new teacher evaluation law is being faithfully followed
  • The Indiana Department of Education’s monitoring of the lowest scoring schools is working effectively.

Oliver said board members were asked about their availability for a special meeting the week of June 23 to discuss the issue, but he thinks that is too late.

“If we don’t have a plan by June 23, that’s a concern,” he said. “It’s due June 30.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said board members should be getting updates from the staff of the Center for Education and Career Innovation. The center, created by Gov. Mike Pence last August, has irked Ritz, who at times has complained that Pence uses it to usurp her duties.

“The state board staff has been on every call we’ve had with (the U.S. Department of Education),” Altman said. “As far as when they update the state board, that’s up to them. If someone on the state board has a problem they can talk to their staff.”

Altman said there has been progress in talks with federal officials.

“We’ve been having regular conversations and are working with them collaboratively,” he said.

But Oliver said he and others on the board have been frustrated that Ritz’s take on the state’s dealings with the U.S. Department of Education haven’t always matched what they hear from CECI staff and others.

In fact, CECI spokeswoman Lou Ann Baker was less optimistic than Altman about the progress that’s been made in phone meetings that have included federal officials along with state education department and CECI staff.

“There have been three phone call and clearly much work is yet to be done,” Baker said.

One state, Washington, lost its waiver earlier this year for failing to comply with its terms and three others have been put on notice that their waivers are in serious danger if changes are not made. Indiana’s letter was unique. The state was not given “high risk” status but it still had more problems to address than most states.

For Washington, losing the waiver will mean less flexibility in how federal education dollars are spent in local schools, a situation Indiana’s state board hopes to avoid.

IPS seeks more control

The meeting agenda says a recommendation to the board regarding “lead partner determinations” is forthcoming, but gives no specifics.

Last month, Indianapolis Public Schools asked if the district could serve as its own “lead partner” for John Marshall, George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools. It asked to fire outside companies that were hired by the state to assist those schools.

Broad Ripple and George Washington were two of seven schools statewide that faced the possibility of state takeover when they reached six straight years of F grades for low test scores in 2011. The state board stopped short of asking outside companies to manage those schools independently from IPS.

Lead partners who have worked with the schools include The New Teacher Project and Scholastic Achievement Partners, both of New York City, and Texas-based Voyager Learning.

IPS last year won permission from the state to fire one of George Washington’s lead partners, New York-based Amplify, replacing it with a consultant who trained school staff in the “eight-step process,” a program of frequent testing and regrouping of students used in several IPS schools.

At the request of then-IPS Superintendent Eugene White in 2012, the state board agreed to assign Voyager to try to improve test scores at Marshall, which entered state intervention after six consecutive F grades, and a group of feeder schools nearby.

But new IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee argued the district could better manage the process internally under a plan he proposed.

Guidance proposed for new standards

The Indiana Education Roundtable, in approving Indiana’s new academic standards in April, asked the Indiana Department of Education to produce the guidance it will give to schools and teachers about how to use the new standards by June 15. The state board is scheduled to discuss that guidance Wednesday.

Guidance is potentially controversial because it may give teachers examples and direction for recommended methods to teach the new standards.

It was guidance for teaching to Common Core, standards used by most states that Indiana rejected earlier this year, that caused much of the concern from critics who feared those standards would lead teachers toward teaching methods that may be in conflict with the way math and English are taught in some Indiana districts.

Already Common Core critics have complained that Indiana’s new standards are mostly similar to Common Core.

State board procedures

The state board has continued to refine its rules for conducting meetings since an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly adjourned rather than allow a motion from Oliver.

Among the changes that have since been made are new procedures for placing items on the agenda and for board members to make motions during board meetings.

On Wednesday, the board is expected consider one more change: allowing public comment on items that do not appear on the agenda. The current rules require speakers to restrict their remarks to items that the board plans to talk about during the meeting.

Board member David Freitas was among those who pushed for allowing public comment on any topic, regardless of whether it was already on the agenda.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.