Future of Schools

Christel House rebounds after controversy and test score drop

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy South charter school, which was at the center of accusations former state Superintendent Tony Bennett changed Indiana’s A to F grading system to raise its grade, saw a strong rebound in its ISTEP scores in 2013-14.

After a long string of A’s, Christel House South fell to an F in 2012-13 after test scores made a dramatic drop and blamed problems with online testing as the reason. This year, it recovered nearly all of its lost ground by gaining 9 points to 71 percent passing. The school’s passing rate had been more than 70 percent the prior three years.

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said he was pleased to see the school return to the sort of passing rate that was routine in the past. Mayor Greg Ballard is the school’s sponsor, with responsibility for monitoring its performance and the power to decide if its charter is renewed to keep operating.

“We were impressed by Christel House’s acknowledgement of having some challenges last year and the corrections they made this year,” Kloth said. “We’re not surprised, under strong consistent leadership, to see their results improve.”

A scandal erupted in 2013 when emails shared with reporters by staff members working for Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz, showed Bennett and his lieutenants worried that Christel House might receive a C while they were at work on revising the state’s A to F school accountability system in 2012.

Bennett’s team made changes in the grading formula that resulted in the school maintaining its A for 2011-12. The school’s founder, philanthropist Christel DeHaan, had contributed to Bennett’s political campaign in the past.

A legislative investigation later deemed Bennett’s A to F changes “plausible” and the state’s ethics commission declined to bring charges against him based on the Christel House concerns. In July he paid a fine for a campaign law violation instead.

When Christel House was given an F for 2012-13 based on the test score drop some critics saw it is more evidence the school had received special treatment under Bennett. The school’s leaders, however, argued their scores were depressed by online testing glitches that interrupted ISTEP for thousands of students across the state and a large number at the school. The school appealed the F grade but was denied.

This year, their scores jumped back up.

“The fact that we had kids who couldn’t complete the test, it obviously had an impact,” said Carey Dahncke, the school’s former principal who is now CEO of a growing stable of Chirstel House charter schools. “We are disappointed that our appeal wasn’t granted. In our head, this makes it a little bit better.”

Kloth stopped short of agreeing with Dahncke that last year’s drop was entirely driven by the testing problems, saying there was never a definitive answer about what went wrong. The mayor’s staff expected a rebound either way.

“We look at school performance over the long term,” Kloth said. “They’ve gotten very good results consistently within (grades) K to 8. They have strong leadership and governance. We were confident the results they had were going to improve.”

Dahncke said the school made few major changes this year, as school leaders were confident they would be proven right that last year’s result was a glitch-driven aberration.

But one change the school did make was it administered ISTEP entirely on paper this year, taking a pass on the online option.

Christel House South’s focus now, Dahncke said, is on helping its students who still did not pass ISTEP to improve and putting the testing problems behind them.

“That’s water under the bridge,” he said. “You can’t go back an change it. Our supporters understood and continue to believe in the work we do. We think this verifies that.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.