IPS plan would close Key, and shift programs at four schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Key Learning Community, a K-12 school famous for its unique curriculum, will close at the end of the school year.

One of Indianapolis Public School’s most famous schools would shut down and four others would see dramatic changes to their offerings under a plan presented to the school board tonight.

The plan is to close Key Learning Community, a K-12 magnet school that opened in 1987 as the world’s first with curriculum inspired by the Multiple Intelligences theory, in 2016.

It also would shift the International Baccalaureate program from Gambold Preparatory High School on the Northwest side to Shortridge High School on the North side. That program would replace Shortridge’s signature law and public policy program, which would move to Arsenal Tech High School to make room.

Arsenal would also absorb the media and mass communications program from Broad Ripple High School under the plan.

Besides Key, all the other changes would occur before the next school year begins.

More than two dozen parents, mostly from Shortridge and Broad Ripple, said after the meeting that they were concerned about the moves and angry that they were not given an opportunity to speak. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said they would still get that opportunity next week.

“We will have opportunities for our citizens to weigh in,” he said.

Changes at five schools

Gambold and Shortridge were among several schools that former superintendent Eugene White reopened or reorganized by placing a specialty magnet program on those campuses. Gambold reopened in 2012 and has 164 students in grades 9 to 11. Shortridge was converted to a magnet high school in 2009 and has about 700 students in grades 6 to 12.

The possibility of moving the IB program to Shortridge was first raised last year, with idea of having the school located closer to magnet elementary schools on the city’s North side, like the Centers for Inquiry and Sidener Gifted Academy, as part of the thinking in hopes those families would stay in IPS by choosing the IB program rather than opting for private and charter high schools.

Gambold earned an A grade from the state. Shortridge’s high school was rated a C and middle school was rated a D by the state for low test scores last year.

Broad Ripple is an arts and humanities magnet high school with about 915 students in grades 6 to 12. The school earned a B for its high school and an F for its middle school from the state last year based on test scores and other factors. The school would continue to offer performing and visual arts and humanities magnet programs under the proposal.

Arsenal Tech, the district’s largest high school with more than 1,800 students in grades 9 to 12, already has 22 magnet programs in specialties as diverse as culinary arts, fire rescue and welding. It has been rated a D for three straight years.

Parent concerns

Parents who came to the meeting said they receive an automated phone call late Monday, after the deadline to sign up 24 hours in advance to speak to the board. They said they would be back on Tuesday to speak against the proposal before the board votes.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it and that’s why I’m down here,” said Theresa Harris, a Broad Ripple graduate with a son who attends the school now.

Mary Juerling, a member of the group Parent Power and mother of a recent transfer student to Shortridge, said the plan was unfair. For example, she said, it would require perhaps more than 700 students to move from the school to stay with their magnet programs, while little more than 100 would be moving in.

Several parents asked why the district didn’t just move the Gambold IB program to Arsenal Tech and leave Shortridge out of it.

“My choices are being taken away in my local community,” Juerling said.

Jeurling also said the move had racial implications, potentially moving a larger numbers of poor, black and Hispanic children to make way for programs that serve more white families and wealthy families.

Shortridge is 87 percent black, Hispanic or multiracial and 81 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $43,500 or less. Gambold is 65 percent black, Hispanic or multiracial with 70 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“You see a disproportionate impact on certain racial groups,” Jeurling said.

Board members have questions

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the plan would make better use of school buildings, create more space in high demand programs and improve student achievement.

“We believe this is an opportunity for increased efficiency,” he said.

At least three board members — Michael Brown, Annie Roof and Gayle Cosby — appeared to have concerns about the plan or the process. Roof and Cosby asked about communication with the school about the proposal. Cosby said she was “dismayed” that parents and school staff weren’t involved in discussions about the future of the schools sooner.

“I have a concern about informing parents and families about something of this magnitude the night before,” she said.

Brown said the plan failed to take into account the historical reasons for why the programs were placed in the schools in the first place.

“I am not in favor of any of these moves,” Brown said.

The end of Key?

The closing of Key would bring an era of uniquely creative education to an end.

The Multiple Intelligences psychological theory was developed by Harvard professor Howard Gardner in a groundbreaking book in 1983. A group of IPS teachers who read it made a pilgrimage to meet Gardner at a speaking engagement in 1984, proposing the idea of building a school around the intelligences. Gardner gave his blessing.

The Key school opened with 150 students in grades K to 6 in 1987 to national media attention as a worldwide first and has since been extensively studied for its applications of Gardner’s ideas.

Gardner’s research attempted categorize human behaviors that he felt qualified as “intelligence:” visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. Every person, he theorized, possessed a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses in each category. Gardner also criticized standardized testing, arguing that it mostly measured just two types of intelligence.

The school embraced those ideas by attempting to create learning activities that allowed kids to play to their strengths, particularly through projects or by allowing unstructured time to explore their interests. Key enjoyed a run as one of the district’s most celebrated schools known for strong student performance and catering to some of the district’s wealthiest families. But by the early 2000s, student poverty had grown and test performance fell off dramatically.

Today, Key is a K-12 school on White River Parkway Drive near downtown Indianapolis, a site the district has identified as potentially valuable.

Principal Sheila Dollaske came on board in 2012 with the goal of invigorating the school. Key made dramatic test score gains at elementary grades soon after, but overall performance has been mixed. The school last year earned a C for middle and high school but an F for elementary school.

NOTE: This story was updated to correct the high school grade Shortridge received this year (C) and the grade for Gambold (A).

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.