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.

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