Future of Schools

New state board members talk Glenda Ritz, testing, state takeover

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Michele Walker, who heads Indiana's state testing program for the Indiana Department of Education, speaks to the state board earlier this month.

A major overhaul for the Indiana State Board of Education this week, fueled by a change in state law that prompted five new appointments, means new people bringing new opinions to the debates about key issues.

But what do the new board members — a retired superintendent, an online school principal, an energy company official, an assistant superintendent and the CEO of an education non-profit — believe about the big questions facing Indiana’s schools?

Chalkbeat asked each new board member about the same four issues: state takeover, testing, A-to-F grading and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s leadership.

Gov. Mike Pence said his appointments — three new board members and five holdovers — were driven more by state law requirements that dictate where state board members must live, their backgrounds in education and their political affiliations than anything else. Two other new board members were appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Pence said Thursday he was grateful for the work of those who stepped down or were not reappointed, and he expected the new board would have a positive influence. The board has struggled through turmoil driven by disagreements over policy and procedures the last two years.

“I truly believe this will provide a fresh start for the state board of education,” Pence said. “The reappointments and appointments I think represent a new blend of individuals that I think are going to bring renewed energy, fresh perspective and a level of experience that I’m confident is going to help the board refocus on student achievement.”

Here is where the new board members said they stand on four key questions:

SHOULD INDIANA CONTINUE TO TAKE OVER FAILING SCHOOLS?

Steve Yager, retired superintendent from Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne

Yager said he wouldn’t talk about current state takeover practices until he was able to learn more.

“I’m not well read enough on that to have an opinion before I even take a seat,” Yager said.

Byron Ernest, the head of schools for the online charter school network Hoosier Academies

Ernest has experience with state takeover — he served as the principal of Manual High School in Indianapolis from 2013 to 2014 after it was handed off by the state board to be run by Charter Schools USA.

He said he doesn’t think the current system is necessarily the best one.

“If a school is not performing then I think it’s in the best interests of our students that we put that school in the best position to not be failing,” Ernest said. “Now does that mean that the takeover has to look like what I went to at Manual? No, not necessarily.”

Eddie Melton, community relations manager at Northern Indiana Public Service Company

Melton said state takeover should be a last resort.

The state board, he said, should think about “what can we do collectively to help support school districts so that they can build the systems to be successful.”

He said he didn’t have an opinion about takeovers the board has approved in the past.

“Not being a part of the process in the past, I’m not sure what was done in terms of that,” he said. “So I can’t judge the past of the decisions made. I can just give my perspective moving forward.”

Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead The Way

Bertram said he is a strong believer in accountability but thinks the state needs to take a hard look at whether its current intervention strategies are working. He said he doesn’t know the answer.

“I want to ask us to look deeply at the evidence,” Bertram said. “I think we need to ask ourselves tough questions every day and we need to confront the realities of those answers. Whether it’s a takeover or any other accountability measure, it’s critical we have that kind of introspection.”

Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township

Kwiatkowski has more background in state takeover than any board member: she once oversaw the process for the Indiana Department of Education.

In 2011, it was her recommendations the board used when it severed four Indianapolis Public Schools and one school in Gary from district control and handed them off to be run independently.

“They were having tremendous problems,” said Kwiatkowski, who visited all of the schools.

Still, four years after she left that job, Kwiatkowski said she need to brush up on everything that’s happened to those school since before making up her mind if the strategy should be used again.

“I think it would be very important as a board member to look at has it been successful or not,” she said. “I believe every school is very unique.”

HOW WOULD YOU CHANGE ISTEP?

Yager

Yager said he wanted the board to look at a variety of options for moving forward with ISTEP, and he supported a push for a shorter test.

“I’m in favor of shortening the process, but I also know we have to follow federal guidelines,” he said.

Ernest

Ernest thinks Indiana should be able to chart its own course on tests, rather than simply follow what other states are doing.

“I tend to lean on that we need to be doing what’s right for Indiana,” Ernest said. “So that means if we need to individualize that for Indiana and not use something that is ready-made, out-of-the-box to use, then we need to do that.”

Melton

Melton promised to brush up on this issue as well.

“I would definitely want to come in and really study the issues and concerns,” Melton said. “At this point I don’t have any recommendations. I would really be very open into learning more about (educators’) concerns so I can better assess.”

Bertram

Bertram said he believes the current ISTEP exam doesn’t capture a comprehensive picture of student performance.

“The bigger question is how do we effectively measure the outcomes we’re interested in, and are we measuring the right kind of outcomes?” Bertram said. “Is there something better for our students and are we willing to make that kind of commitment? What evidence do we have that any gain on ISTEP is an indicator of improved performance beyond school?”

Kwiatkowski

One thing Kwiatkowski is sure of, as an assistant superintendent in Warren Township, is that Pence was right to complain about the length of ISTEP in February.

“Shortening the time for ISTEP is something we need to do,” she said. “This year ISTEP drug on too long. It affected every student in our schools. Schedules had to be changed. We really had to make adjustments.”

IS AN A-TO-F SCALE A FAIR WAY TO JUDGE SCHOOLS?

Yager

Yager co-chaired with Ritz a committee that made recommendations to the state board that led to the newly retooled A-to-F grading system it approved earlier this month. He said he thinks it’s far better than the one it replaced, especially when it comes to measuring how students have improved.

“I don’t know that there is a perfect answer to the testing situation and how kids should be tested,” Yager said. “But I know that what we have proposed is something that is a lot more fair.”

Ernest

Test scores can only tell us so much, Ernest said. Accountability for schools is important, but it shouldn’t rely solely on what the state can see on tests like ISTEP. Other factors, like classwork, attendance and five-year graduation rate can also provide information about students and understanding about how schools are serving them.

“I just think we need to adapt the accountability to where we are and what we’re doing,” Ernest said. “So, looking more at the student and then what the school is able to do with those students while they have them in their care.”

Melton

Melton said he want to hear more about what people have to say about A-to-F grading.

“That’s something I would definitely want to learn from the community from various parts of the state,” he said.

Bertram

Schools, Bertram said, need freedom and support, and then they can be better judged on their efforts.

“If we’re going to hold schools accountable we (need to be) giving them the resources necessary to effect change,” Bertram said, “the freedom to work outside of a system that’s been proven to not be highly effective.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiakowski said getting A-to-F grades right, so they are useful to parents and schools, is critical.

“It’s an easy way for parents to understand,” she said. “We really have to make sure the criteria to put grades on schools are looking at the right thing.”

For her district, the grades have mostly seemed fair, Kwiatkowski said.

“They’ve been a pretty good match for us,” she said. “We have some years that we may have some unique circumstance that we think are not fair that one year but overall (the grade were) pretty fair matches.”

HAS GLENDA RITZ BEEN A GOOD LEADER AS STATE SUPERINTENDENT?

Yager

While Ritz has been in office, Yager said he’s only attended a couple state board meetings. He wouldn’t comment on Ritz’s effectiveness as board leader, he said he respects her focus on students.

“She really cares about kids and learning, and I respect that a great deal,” Yager said. “That’s kind of the same thing that I’m interested in — children learning, and girls and boys and what’s best for them.”

Ernest

Petty arguments and politics have no place on the board, Ernest said, no matter who is the leader.

“I think we’ve got to drop that at the door,” he said. “I was appointed by the speaker to, again, help drive good policy, good procedures for Indiana education, and so I’m going to work with whoever is in that position.”

Melton

Melton was the one new board member who said unequivocally that Ritz was doing well.

“I think she’s done a great job in this role,” Melton said. “I’m looking forward to working with her and the entire board.”

Bertram

Bertram said he was eager to begin working with Ritz.

“I would not have accepted this opportunity if I wasn’t interested in working with Superintendent Ritz,” Bertram said. “This is going to require a great deal of collaboration. I look forward to sitting down and finding ways to work together to realize our state’s potential. She has a significant job ahead of her as well as an amazing opportunity to lead education in the state. I think it’s our obligation as a state board to help support that effort. I’m looking ward to sitting down with her and listening and being part of this journey moving forward.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiatkowski said she has not closely followed state board discussions since leaving the education department. Ritz’s impact on education was hard to judge even for someone who works in public schools, she said, as many factors have been at play.

“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve had new standards and new assessments. We’ve had different issues with funding. All of those are complex issues for districts. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say are we better or not better.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.