Future of Schools

Senate defeats civics test bill, grapples with future of ISTEP

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Both of these bills are coming from lawmakers who are part of the Senate Education Committee.

Indiana students might be off the hook from a proposal asking they pass a civics test to graduate from high school after a bill to require it was defeated in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 269, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, would have required all Indiana graduates to pass the same civics test that new U.S. citizens are required to pass. The bill was originally intended only for public schools, but was amended Monday to include students at private schools accepting vouchers as well.

But it couldn’t muster enough votes in the heavily Republican Senate to pass. It was defeated 33-17.

Lawmakers opposed to the bill said it would have increased testing time in a session where a major goal has been to reduce it.

But Kruse argued it was reasonable to ask students to have knowledge of the U.S. and its history that immigrants are asked to know upon becoming citizens. A one-hour test that students have five years to pass, he said, wouldn’t add a burden to schools and existing testing demands.

“I think this one hour will be appropriate for us to at least have our kids know something about civics,” Kruse said.

Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and others who objected said a civics test that can block graduation was going too far.

“I would agree with you that we absolutely need people to know what the laws are … and I wouldn’t mind a test,” she said at the appropriations committee meeting last week. “But for that test to be one that would determine whether or not a student would graduate, for me that is, the stakes are too high.”

The Senate also took up the wider question of what exams should serve as the state test, with somewhat confusing results.

As costs for ISTEP have grown — the Indiana Department of Education estimates a new, more sophisticated exam matched to new standards with higher expectations could cost up to 45 percent more per year — some lawmakers have looked for an alternative plan.

One idea is to replace ISTEP with a basic, national test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or a test created by the Northwest Education Association that some schools use to prepare for ISTEP. Two bills that passed have contradictory approaches to that idea.

Senate Bill 566, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, would stop the process of creating a new ISTEP for 2016, in favor of using a national test in its place. The bill would eliminate high school end-of-course exams, starting in 2015-16, and the state’s third-grade reading test, IREAD. It passed the Senate 46-3.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 470, authored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would hold off on that plan in favor of a studying the future possibility of using such a test in place of ISTEP over the summer. It passed 45-5. The House will have to sort out the two approaches.

The Senate must finish its work this week on bills that will be considered in the House starting next month. Bills that passed today included:

  • Cursive writing, Senate Bill 130. The bill, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, would require that all public and private elementary schools teach cursive writing, which was dropped as a requirement by the Indiana Department of Education in 2011. The Senate passed the bill 39-11.
  • Deregulation, Senate Bill 500. The 300-page bill was designed to reduce regulations on schools. The bill’s author, Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he removed nearly all of the sections of the bill that had raised concerns. That included 27 sections addressing student health care, school safety and worker safety reporting, tax issues and more. The bill passed 31-18.
  • Scholarships and grants, Senate Bill 509The bill would allow the Commission on Higher Education to ask the state to transfer money among scholarship and grant funds to meet the needs of students. It passed the Senate 49-0.
  • Teacher collective bargaining, Senate Bill 538The bill, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, contains new rules that allow non-union organizations to represent teachers in contract negotiations as long as they are not primarily commercial companies. The Senate passed the bill 30-19.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.