Early Childhood

Indiana's five biggest education stories of 2014

(NOTE: Chalkbeat Indiana will publish on a reduced schedule after today until Jan. 5. We will be republishing some of our favorite stories from 2014, so check back during the break to revisit some of our most interesting reporting of the year. During the break, our daily Rise and Shine feature and morning newsletter will also be on hiatus. We hope you’ll continue to join us in 2015 as we work to bring you even broader and more in-depth coverage of education in Indiana.)

From political battles at the Indiana Statehouse to major moves at Indianapolis Public Schools, 2014 was a big year for education in Indiana.

Here’s a recap of five of the most influential education news events of the year as Chalkbeat sees them. Do you agree or disagree? Tell us in the comments below!

1. Indiana Junks Common Core:

CommonCoreWide

Early in 2014, Indiana became the first state to back out of its plan to follow Common Core academic standards, which in 2010 it had adopted along with 45 other states. Indiana had been one the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Common Core. In four short years, everything changed. Common Core became embroiled in national politics and caught in the crossfire of decades-old philosophical debates about the best ways for children to learn. This spring, a bill to void the Common Core as the state’s standards passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. Mike Pence, earning praise for the governor from critics who distrusted the federal government’s endorsement of the standards. But the cheers subsided when drafts of the new standards were released. Common Core opponents complained that many of the standards were identical or nearly the same as Common Core. The quick change of direction on standards also knocked Indiana off schedule for connecting its new standards to state tests, creating new difficulties for schools trying to prepare students to pass those tests.

2. State launches first ever preschool pilot:

Gov. Mike Pence greets preschoolers on a visit to Shepherd Community Center in February.

Pence pushed hard to get a small preschool pilot approved by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014. Most of the five counties participating — including Marion County — are poised to start serving children in January. Pence made beefing up state’s preschool investment the top priority on his education agenda for the legislative session, and got the program established despite serious doubts from some of his Republican allies in the legislature and a few setbacks that put the bill in peril. Meanwhile, the city of Indianapolis separately approved the framework for a $40 million public-private effort to expand preschool options for poor families in the city.

3. Glenda Ritz and Mike Pence take their battle to a new level: 

Ritz vs Pence

The distrust among Indiana’s top education leaders was obvious at nearly every Indiana State Board of Education meeting in 2014. Tensions that built after Pence created by executive order the Center for Education and Career Innovation in 2013, climaxed with battles over who was responsible for shortcomings that brought the attention of federal officials. The U.S. Department of education raised concerns in May that Indiana was not following an agreement under which it was freed from some sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law and set a short deadline to make fixes. After weeks of finger pointing, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s report was approved and the NCLB waiver renewed for another year. After constant complaints from Ritz that CECI was designed to usurp her power, Pence surprised everyone last month by announcing he would shut the agency down to assuage her fears. But that pledge came with a twist: He wants Ritz to give up her role as chairwoman of the state board.
 
4. A massive effort to overhaul teacher evaluations changed little: 

A teacher at IPS School 90 works helps a student.

After the first school year under tougher new teacher evaluation rules, hardly any teachers were rated in the lowest category, results that mirrored the old system. Statewide just 219 educators were rated “ineffective” last May of 50,000 educators who were evaluated. In fact, nearly all rated educators — 97 percent — were classified in the top two categories as effective or highly effective. Legislators are weighing changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law, which was first passed in 2011, saying that the high scores suggest that the law does not go far enough to identify which teachers need help or should be removed.

5. IPS reveals financial stunner: 

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee sits with members of the public and Indianapolis financial community as he explains the district's financial situation with interim CFO Paul Carpenter-Wilson.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee sent a shock wave through the Indianapolis Public Schools community back in March when he revealed the $30 million deficit the district had been struggling with for nearly a year doesn’t exist. In fact, IPS ended 2013 with an $8.4 million surplus. Ferebee speculated that IPS’s prior administration “intentionally overstated expenses to protect our cash balance.” The revelation, which was met with skepticism from his predecessors, led the administration to change the way it reports and manages finances, with more detailed reports to the board and the public. Two outside audits of IPS’s operations revealed a recent history of poorly managed finances and an unsophisticated investment strategy for managing the district’s cash reserves.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.