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


  • 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.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.


Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”