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.”

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.