Township school board races

Washington Township candidates aim to help schools adapt to change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Washington Township teachers meet for IB training last year.

This is one of 10 school board races in Marion County. Check back with Chalkbeat Indiana throughout the week for more information on the other candidates

 

District snapshot

Washington Township achieved a milestone at the beginning of this school year: it became the first district in Indiana to offer International Baccalaureate curriculum to all its students, and just the sixth worldwide.

Like other township school districts in Marion County, Washington Township has also seen an increase in the number of poor families it serves, as well as an increase in students learning English as a second language. Updating curriculum and instruction to offer a more rigorous and internationally minded education to students was one way Superintendent Nikki Woodson said the district was adapting to its changing community.

Donald Kite and William Turner, who have both previously served on the school board, are running for their seats unopposed.

Candidates in this race discussed the issues recently on Amos Brown’s radio show.

Key school district data

  • Enrollment: 11,161 students
  • Ethnicity: 39 percent black, 32.8 percent white, 16.6 percent hispanic
  • Poverty: 59.3 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch
  • ISTEP math and English passing rate 2014: 71.1 percent
  • 2012-13 graduation rate (most recent available): 81.5 percent

Candidates

  • Donald Bradley Kite Sr., attorney at Wuertz Law Office LLC in Indianapolis, running for re-election to District 2.
  • William D Turner Jr., 54, Director, Education & Development Allison Transmission Inc., running for re-election to District 1.

Why did you choose to run for the school board?

Kite: I am proud of having been a part of Washington Township for many years, including serving on the school board for the last eight-plus years, and I would very much like to continue to be a part of the decision-making process regarding what I believe is our township’s bright future. My wife and I initially chose Washington Township because of the township’s many strengths including its diversity, its strong academics and its continued focus on the future. While my children are now grown, I very much wish to remain a part of one of the very best school districts in the state of Indiana. I am a committed parent, grandparent and community member who genuinely enjoys working with our township’s different constituencies, including the approximately 80 to 85 percent of township residents who do not currently have children in our schools, and with our township’s talented faculty, staff and administrators. I continue to believe that we are stronger when we work in partnership and I genuinely care about the entire township. I will continue to be objective and to work hard as a member of the board where consensus is important, but where board members have a responsibility to raise and consider different views.

Turner: I am running for re-election because I believe as a board and district we are starting to see improvements in areas of concern. Some of the initiatives that the district has put in place, such as the IB program for all schools, is starting to change the way that our students learn. I would like to be re-elected so that we can continue to help all of our students within our district to achieve at their highest level.

What issues will you focus on?

Kite: As a board member I have consistently focused on and advocated making decisions where the board’s first and foremost consideration is doing what is best for our 11,000-plus students. As a district, we are extremely proud of having recently been authorized as one of the United States’ only K-12 International Baccalaureate school districts, the authorization being the culmination of substantial efforts over a number of years by many fine educators. When I am re-elected (it is safe to say I will be reelected since I am unopposed), I and my fellow board members will continue to focus on doing what is best for our students, which includes eliminating barriers to student learning so that real educational opportunities are available to all of the children in our district. We must also continue to ensure that we are directing adequate resources to all of our students including those for whom English is not their first language and our students with special needs.

Turner: I will continue to focus on academic achievement for all students. We need to continue to close the gap between all groups of students and to make sure they continue to have equal access to learning. Another area of focus would be to continue to monitor all of our buildings. We have some buildings that were built in the 1960s, and at some point will need to have some work done, such as new roofs or heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. This type of work will not be inexpensive, so we as a district must constantly monitor the building conditions and find ways of maintaining them for the safety of our students. I would want to continue to work with making sure that our teachers have the tools they need to help their students have success.

What is the most important issue facing your district?

Kite: There is not one single important issue facing our school district and, unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the many important issues that we are confronting together. We must continue to focus our efforts on eliminating the achievement gap, hiring and retaining the very best faculty and staff and making certain we have adequate resources, which includes our facilities, to do the important work of educating our students and keeping them safe. Being good stewards and making fiscally prudent decisions obviously means taking good care of and even improving — when it is necessary or prudent — our aging facilities.

Turner: One topic always comes up when you are working with a school district, and that is money. Money is important, but so is safety and building maintenance. However, the question is what I think the most important issue is for our district. I think there is still room to improve in closing the achievement gap and working to increase our ISTEP scores for our entire student population. I believe that IB’s inquiry-based learning will not only help with closing the gap, but also prepare our students for life. But to make this happen, we need a school board that works with the district, teachers, parents and, last but not least, the students. To me this is very important. We have an opportunity to positively touch and change young peoples’ lives, and to me that is important.

Anything else about yourself you’d like to share.

Kite: I am, and will continue to be, extremely passionate about our district and about public education as a whole. I do not focus exclusively on any one group of students or any one issue and am proud to say that I have been endorsed by both the Washington Township Parent Council and the Washington Township Education Association each of the three times that I have run for election to the school board.

During my years as a board member I have regularly attended many events throughout the district and over the course of the year, and not merely at the schools that my children attended when they were students in the township. While I hope that this demonstrates how I feel about our students and the district as a whole, I know that attending various events throughout the district allows me the opportunity to talk with parents, faculty, staff and administrators. I have been and will continue to be accessible to the township residents whether or not they presently have children in our schools. I genuinely love serving on the school board and have welcomed (and will continue to welcome) calls from and conversations with the members of our diverse community.

I sincerely believe that we ask a great deal of our teachers and that the board therefore must continue to seek teachers’ input and to consider how particular district policies and practices affect their vital work. Board members must also continue to seek input from other members of our community and to make fiscally responsible decisions.

Turner: I have a long history in Washington Township. I graduated from North Central High School, all three of my daughters attended Washington Township schools, and they also graduated from North Central, and my wife is a teacher at one of our elementary schools. I am truly vested in this community and want to see all of our students achieve all they can.

We have a great school district that strives for excellence in everything we do. This does not mean we are a perfect district. There are areas that we are always working to improve and are making some of those improvements. I would like to continue being a part of this continuous improvement because of my strong belief in the district from a personal perspective.

Answers have been edited for length.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

Ruling

Judge orders Nashville schools to turn over student information to state charters

A Nashville judge has sided with Tennessee’s Achievement School District in the tussle over whether local school districts must share student contact information with charter networks under a new state law.

Chancellor Bill Young this week ordered Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to turn over information requested by LEAD Public Schools, which operates two state-run schools in the city. The district has until March 16 to comply or appeal.

The ruling is a blow to local district leaders in both Nashville and Memphis, who have argued that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets that information. They also contend that the intent of Tennessee’s new charter law, which passed last year, was that such information should not be used for marketing purposes.

The State Department of Education has backed information requests by LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot Public Schools in Memphis, both of which operate charter schools under the state-run turnaround district known as the ASD. State officials say the information is needed to increase parental awareness about their school options and also to help the state’s school turnaround district with planning.

Nashville’s school board has not yet decided whether to appeal Young’s ruling, according to Lora Fox, the city’s attorney.

Shelby County Schools was not included in the state’s lawsuit leading to this week’s ruling, but the case has implications for Memphis schools as well. Last summer, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered both districts to turn over the information. Both have been defiant.

Lawyers representing all sides told Chalkbeat this week that Young set the March 16 deadline to allow time for the legislature to address ambiguity over the state law and for Nashville schools to notify parents of their right to opt out.

Rep. Bill Forgety already has filed a bill in an attempt to clear the air. The Athens Republican chaired the key House committee that advanced the new charter law and has said that recruitment was not the intent of the provision over student contact information. His bill would restrict charter school requests to a two-month window from January 1 to March 1, confine school communication with non-students from February 1 to April 1, and open up a two-way street for districts to request the same information from charter schools.

The disagreement began with longstanding requests from state-run charter organizations for addresses, phone numbers and emails of students and their parents who live in neighborhoods zoned to low-performing schools. When local districts did not comply last summer, the charters cited the new state law requiring them to hand over student information to the charter schools within 30 days of receiving the request.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer on student data sharing and FERPA.