Future of Schools

For parents picking schools, Indianapolis continues to offer a guide

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Lesvi De La Cruz speaks to a small crowd Tuesday at Central Library about how GreatSchools.org helped her find the best school for her son when she moved to Indianapolis in 2012.

In some ways, the debut of the fourth edition of the annual School Chooser Guide for Indianapolis is old news, but not for parents looking for a school for their children this year.

“Why do we have to do this year after year after year? Because the families change year after year after year,” said Judi Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the website GreatSchools.org, to a small crowd that gathered at Indianapolis’s Central Library today. “This is an ongoing community effort and it has to be embedded in the community forever because there’s new people every year looking for new opportunities.”

Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and GreatSchools, a non-profit organization that offers profiles of more than 200,000 schools across the country, collaborated on the latest version of the 160-page paper guide. Indianapolis boasts the highest percentage of families who use the organization’s website, according to Goldberg. About 165,000 unique visitors looked at schools in Indianapolis last year, including some who didn’t live in the city.

Lesvi De La Cruz, 27, was one of those people back in 2012.

De La Cruz’s son, Jason, sat out two weeks of school during Chicago’s teacher strike. So when she decided to move to Indianapolis, she did a quick Google search to find the best school for her now eight-year-old son, and she immediately stumbled across GreatSchools.org.

“I looked online because I didn’t know anyone here in Indianapolis, and it sent me right away to the GreatSchools website,” De La Cruz said. “It was very efficient because I just put in my address and a lot of the neighborhood schools came out, and I was able to make an informed choice.”

She landed on Indiana Math and Science Academy, a charter school on the city’s Northwest side, because she liked the school’s focus on science and math, and she was impressed that it was one of the few schools rated seven out of 10 near her new home in Lafayette Square.

“By where I lived, that rate was really good,” she said. “Most of (the neighborhood schools) are under that.”

De La Cruz later transferred Jason to the new Christel House Academy West when she moved to Haughville, just west of downtown.

“I was just lucky enough to have it open up in my backyard,” she said. “The classes are very small, so he gets a lot of individual attention from the teacher. He’s a leader, so he’s definitely in a place where he can show his potential.”

Christel House West doesn’t have a profile in the School Chooser Guide, but most of the city’s schools do. More than 600 schools are featured in Indianapolis’s guide.

“Because (Indianapolis) has worked so hard to get 97 percent of its schools, it’s a really useful tool,” Goldberg said. “The tool is obviously driven by the information that you get. Each school has their own school account that they can go in and add all of the different touchy-feely things that parents really care about – all that stuff that isn’t recorded because it’s not academic-focused, but it’s that stuff that really matters to parents.”

GreatSchools initially worked with advocacy group Stand For Children to create the guide, but eventually transitioned to the mayor’s office.

“They have such a wonderful connection into the community,” Goldberg said. “It’s a nice neutral way to give good information to parents.”

GreatSchools was founded 25 years ago in San Francisco. The teacher who launched the first guide wanted families who moved to Northern California to be able to learn more easily what they needed to know to choose schools for their children. The guide later became a website and began adding information about schools in cities across the country.

But few cities have extensive paper guides like Indianapolis. GreatSchools has only done that in cities with extensive school choice options. Indianapolis has 11 school districts, charter schools sponsored by the mayor, the state and Ball State University, and an array of private schools that accept publicly-funded tuition vouchers.

The School Chooser Guide provides information such as school addresses, principal names, test scores and graduation rates. The guide, which is available in English and Spanish, is distributed at all Indianapolis public libraries, Kroger stores and Indy Parks locations for free.

“We didn’t really change it much this year,” Goldberg said. “We finally landed on a pretty good combination of what parents need to know.”

Ballard said summer is the best time for parents to weigh their options when it comes to choosing a school for their child.

“Our highest quality schools fill up very quickly,” he said. “Parents need to know how to sign up.”

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.