Future of Schools

Indiana superintendent hoping film will launch an education movement

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
West Lafayette School Corp. Superintendent Rocky Killion promotes his him "Rise Above the Mark," a rallying cry for public schools, at a screening in May at Anderson High School.

Superintendent Rocky Killion, standing on stage in an unfamiliar auditorium at Anderson High School late last month, was trying to galvanize a couple dozen teachers and public school activists.

“You may like this movie,” he said. “You may get mad about this movie. That’s fine. This is not about a political party.”

Killion was introducing a screening of the documentary film “Rise Above the Mark,” a film that says its goal is to expose the “corporate takeover of public schools.”

It was Killion, while serving as superintendent of the affluent, high-performing West Lafayette public schools, who led the film’s creation and then persuaded a tiny foundation attached the district to pay for it.

The movie has taken on a life of its own. The original vision — spending about $40,000 to feature some of the best attributes of West Lafayette schools — has long since been eclipsed.

The movie, narrated by Peter Coyote, who played the key-shaking scientist tracking an alien in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” showcases frustrated teachers, experts and others complaining about recent changes in education funding and other new pressures placed on schools.

The film paints former state Superintendent Tony Bennett as a primary villain. Bennett, ousted by voters in 2012 by teacher champion Glenda Ritz, pushed many of the changes the film opposes.

Awkwardly for Killion and West Lafayette schools, Bennett worked in concert with the state’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who now is president of West Lafayette’s economic lifeblood Purdue University.

Killion is now balancing his day job running the district with cross-country trips to promote an issue-driven documentary with a political bent. The foundation is still spending to promote the film, which it thinks will ultimately cost at least twice the budgeted amount.

“Rise Above the Mark” may have the exact opposite message of the popular 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which starred education reform advocates including former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, but Killion is hoping for the same result — increased attention for a point of view he believes has not been adequately represented.

Through the film, Killion joins an unofficial cadre of high-performing local education superintendents nationwide who often are caught on a delicate political tightrope, balancing leading their districts with advocating for them financially at the state or federal level.

“I have great interest in trying to influence the national conversation about education,” he said.

“Rise Above the Mark” has captured the attention of high-profile opponents of the hottest school reform initiatives being pushed by lawmakers in a host of states — school choice, more testing and greater accountability for schools, teachers and students. It has excited local public school activists who hope to reverse the trend.

But three months after its premiere, questions remain about whether the movie ultimately will make the impact Killion is hoping for in Indiana: a return of trust and funding to public schools like his that are succeeding.

“I haven’t heard one legislator say anything about the film – positive or negative,” said Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette, a lawmaker who at times straddles the fence on touchy Indiana education legislation. He was interviewed for “Rise Above the Mark” but didn’t make the final cut.

“Most of them haven’t seen it,” Truitt said of his legislative colleagues. “I don’t think most of them want to see it, because it’s a topic where there’s so much more to the story than one person or one group can illustrate.”

How, then, did Killion manage to convince West Lafayette school supporters to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an anti-education reform documentary that had a chance at alienating the legislature the school district is financially dependent on?

It all started when the West Lafayette school district faced deep cuts to their award-winning music, fine arts and athletic programs as a result of the state’s funding model.

What follows are the lengths that Killion went to protect his schools — from a referendum to restore West Lafayette’s lost state funding to the rallying cry for public schools that is the film “Rise Above the Mark.”

An unlikely epicenter

The curious thing about West Lafeyette schools becoming an epicenter for revolt against Indiana’s recent changes to its education system is that the city’s children are doing very well.

With 91 percent of students passing ISTEP last year, the district was 18 points higher than the state average.

West Lafayette also isn’t poor, like many of the big urban and small rural districts that have been the most vocal opponents of changes like expanded teacher evaluation, testing and school choice. With only 15 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, West Lafayette has the fourth wealthiest student body in the state behind only Zionsville (5 percent), Carmel (10 percent) and Hamilton Southeastern (14 percent).

But one of the reasons Killion argues that Indiana’s education changes have gone too far is that West Lafayette has suffered despite its success. The core of the district’s trouble was financial.

When state legislators in 2009 removed property tax revenue from school districts’ general funds for tax relief, shifting that responsibility to the state, Killion feared he’d have to gut the award-winning extracurriculars to balance the budget.

He estimated West Lafayette Schools would lose between $500,000 and $700,000 per year based on the new funding formula, he wrote at the time. The district soon launched a campaign to pass a seven-year tax referendum. Relying on West Lafayette political strategist Steve Klink for guidance, Killion succeeded: the referendum passed by a 2-1 margin.

But already he was thinking about what came next.

“We know that we have a small window of time to prepare ourselves for our future,” Killion wrote after the referendum passed. “If we don’t find additional funding opportunities by the time our referendum ends, we may face the reality other school districts are currently facing.”

The first blueprints for “Rise Above the Mark” were drawn up shortly after, said West Lafayette school board president Alan Karpick.

“I think it’s realistic to say we had hoped that there would be some ability to raise a fair amount of money from (producing a film),” Karpick said. “Did we think it could solve our funding problems? No.”

From promotional film to politics

A local school foundation isn’t usually the sort of organization that financially backs films meant to help fan the flames of a national movement. In West Lafayette, most of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation projects pay for backpacks for poor children, school improvements or other supports for teachers and students.

“We’re not a political group,” said Beth Bangs, a school nurse for West Lafayette’s Happy Hollow Elementary School who is a member of the foundation. “We fund the backpack program.”

The film was paid for entirely by donations to the foundation, with gifts anywhere from $50 to $12,000. The foundation’s development director Sally Miller, who also applied for grants to fund the film, declined to release the identity of the organizations who donated.

“We have donors across the political spectrum,” she said. “What’s been interesting is that because people made donations while we were in the process, they didn’t all know how it was going to turn out.”

Miller estimates so far Rise Above the Mark has cost about $72,000 and she expects more spending. They won’t know the final costs until the showings and events die down, she said.

“Rise Above the Mark” did not turn out to be what the foundation’s first leaders expected it to be: a film to promote the district’s schools.

“The idea from the foundation was we wanted to do a video that said, ‘look at our school and what a unique school system this is,’” said Brad Cohen, the foundation’s immediate past president. “Not all public schools are failing. All of a sudden our mission started twisting, or changing. It became a much bigger project.”

As he developed the film, Killion looked to a former partner: Klink, the strategist who helped with the referendum.

Steve Klink became executive producer of “Rise Above the Mark” and his son Jack Klink, a 23-year-old Purdue University student, became the director. Steve’s wife and Jack’s mother, West Lafayette author Angie Klink, wrote the narrative for the film.

The Klinks didn’t mind being at odds over the film with Indiana Republicans, who are driving most of the education reform legislation in Indiana, even though self-proclaimed conservative Steve Klink worked on the reelection campaign for West Lafayette’s Republican Mayor John Dennis and previously served on the Lafayette City Council.

“We didn’t want to hold ourselves back because we were scared,” Jack Klink said. “That’s what so many people are doing. What we wanted to do was point out these issues and provide a platform for others to come forward.”

One potential partner quickly got cold feet.

A Lafayette marketing firm the foundation had sought out to help produce the film backed away because of its blunt tone.

“What we began to realize is this is a politically charged endeavor,” said Miller, the development director. “I mean, like lightning in a bottle.”

Unlikely political bedfellows

So far, the film’s donors seem to be OK with the tone of the film.

“Indiana’s a conservative state, and when you have businesses and chambers of commerce who are rolling in a conservative manner, you’re going to step on some toes,” Miller said. “Nobody so far has withdrawn their support, or demanded their money back.”

“Rise Above the Mark” has the support of Dennis, West Lafayette’s Republican mayor, who described his school corporation as the “crown jewel” of the community.

“When you engage in discussions that challenge things, sometimes the conversation has no choice but to turn political,” Dennis said.

The doesn’t mean everyone in West Lafayette is thrilled with the foundation’s intense focus on producing and marketing the film.

Truitt, the Republican legislator, said he has heard from community members who are upset about the cost of the film.

“A lot of people were trying to figure it out,” Truitt said. “We’re spending 60, 70, 80 thousand on this, and that’s a lot of education scholarships for kids. The proof will be somewhere down the road when it turns into something.”

Cohen said he understands those concerns.

“Can we question the time spent? Sure,” Cohen said. “Did it cost a little more time than we planned? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But I celebrate what we have.”

Some people started feeling anxious about the tone of the film when Daniels, who recruited Bennett and backed his run for state superintendent, became president of the nearby Purdue University a day after he left the governor’s office in 2013.

The West Lafayette school district and Purdue, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, are inextricably connected. Many of the district’s children have at least one parent who works at the university.

“It could be a little uncomfortable,” Miller acknowledged.

Daniels has not seen the film, according to his spokeswoman Shelley Triol at Purdue.

“The movie is not meant to kick Mitch out or throw Mitch under the bus,” said Cohen, who was a founding director of the foundation. “It’s just meant to spark a conversation and hold our legislators accountable.”

Keeping the movement going

Perhaps the film’s apex came in early March at a showing at Butler University. The 2,000-seat Clowes Hall was mostly full with cheering teachers and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A rollicking panel discussion afterward included education historian Diane Ravitch.

Once a champion of standards, testing and school choice, Ravitch has rejected that ideology and become the chief national voice in opposition to it. She drew wild applause during sometimes sharp exchanges with advocates for educational change.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” she said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and most education and which have the least. Then we punish the children whose families have the least. Teacher evaluation by test scores is junk science.”

But the crowds haven’t maintained that size or energy.

The Anderson premiere panel discussion drew local anti-reform advocates, and a much smaller crowd.

Speaking to a crowd of not more than 30 people, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson; Justin Oakley of the Just Let Me Teach radio show; and anti-corporate reform “Hoosier School Heist” author Doug Martin, who has been known to bust out his guitar at meetings and sing about how Tony Bennett and other Indiana reformers ruined education, made their case for public schools.

“You’re being duped,” Oakley told the audience. “You’re being bamboozled. Rome is on fire. We’ve got to fight back.”

Austin hasn’t give up hope that legislators will see the film and hear its message.

“I hope we can get a copy for every legislator in the Indiana general assembly,” she said.

Not everyone in attendance was convinced by its message, including Anderson English teacher Elizabeth Knost.

“It’s a little unfair, because legislators are doing the best they know how to do,” Knost told her colleague, fellow teacher Jordan Pridemore, who was more taken with the film’s message.

“Our students hear it,” returned Pridemore, who said she agreed with the film’s negative characterization of Indiana’s school accountability system. “They say things like ‘Oh, we’re a D school.’”

Driving halfway across the state to show the film to a sparse crowd is worth it for those conversations, Killion said. There’s a chance of reaching another voter, another politician, another teacher that can join his cause.

“The future is hard to predict, but I believe this documentary is going to continue to expand and conversation will definitely reach a national level,” he said “Twenty people here, 30 there. That’s what it takes.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.