Future of Schools

Charter school sponsor group ranks Indiana's charter law No. 1 in the U.S.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The number of charter schools in Indiana will reach 100 this fall.

Indiana’s tougher new standards for charter schools have helped make the state one of the best in the nation for ensuring quality charter schools, a trade group reports.

The state landed the No. 1 ranking among 43 states — tied with Nevada — on a new analysis by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that assessed charter school laws across the country.

NACSA, which has called for charter schools to be shut down if they don’t perform, ranked states by how well their laws promote school oversight.

States at the bottom of the ranking, like Kansas and Virginia, have “moribund” charter laws that produce little accountability for charter schools, the group found.

But the group praised new laws that Indiana has enacted over the last three years, saying they’ve made the state one of the nation’s best for charter school oversight.

“Indiana’s charter school work has been smart,” said Karega Rausch, who lives in Indianapolis and works as Chicago-based NACSA’s vice president of research and evaluation. “It has learned from some of the success and challenges of other states. We have taken a smart growth approach in that we are interested in providing quality options for kids but just growth hasn’t been the driving factor.”

NASCA, a trade group for charter school sponsors, is known for being among the biggest advocates for tough accountability for charter schools.

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has at times been critical of school choice programs, was skeptical of the state’s No. 1 ranking but agreed that more accountability for schools is better for kids.

“We want children to be in good schools,” she said. “I’m always for increased accountability. I really don’t care about the category of school.”

Rausch, a former charter school director for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, said the state’s tough new accountability rules have translated into results for kids. He pointed to a Stanford University study that ranked Indiana charter schools above their peers in other states. The study said students who went to charter schools often did better than similar students in the traditional public schools they otherwise would have gone to. Overall, charter school test scores are well below the state average, however.

“I don’t think anybody would say any of our schools in terms of scale are where they need to be yet,” Rausch said. “Our state’s approach toward charter schooling has been wise. We have seen it not as an ‘end all, be all’ to providing quality education but as vitally important.”

Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University were the only active charter school sponsors in Indiana. School districts and other state universities had the ability to offer charters but had mostly declined to exercise it. Ball State and the mayor’s office were choosy. For the first decade of Indiana’s charter school experience, the mayor and Ball state turned down more than three-quarters of applicants seeking to open new schools.

But some legislators thought charter schools were growing too slowly. Hoping to see more charter schools in the state, lawmakers changed the law in 2011 to create a state charter school board that could authorize charter schools. It also extended charter sponsoring authority to private, nonprofit colleges as well as public universities. The new law encouraged small, low-profile private colleges to become sponsors including Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.

But sponsors in Indiana now must monitor their charter schools more closely than in some other states.

Over the last three years, lawmakers have worked to tighten rules for sponsors.

A 2013 law requires sponsors to close F-rated charter schools after three years. The new law also gives the Indiana State Board of Education authority to reduce the fees sponsors can collect from charter schools and sponsors can now be stripped of their oversight authority if children’s needs aren’t being met in a school.

These new laws have limited the “sponsor shopping” some schools had attempted when the state first expanded the number of charter school authorizers.

The practice involved failing schools switching authorizers to avoid consequences for poor performance.

For example, three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close.

Rausch praised Indiana for pushing transparency in charter school as a good “first step” to ending sponsor shopping, but noted that schools could have legitimate reasons for changing sponsors.

“There could be reasons for that and those reasons may need to be explored,” he said. “But [charter schools] should have to come before the state board and their authorizer and justify it.”

Earlier this year, a new law changed the rules so private colleges could not simply begin sponsoring charter schools if they choose. Instead, they must register with the Indiana State Board of Education, which can now evaluate charter school performance every five years.

The 2015 law requires any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor to alert the current sponsor in writing. The goal is to assure that the new sponsor understands the school’s history and seeks input from the previous sponsor before taking over a school.

The next step, Rausch said, is for Indiana to better define how it measures the performance of unusual charter schools, such as those that serve exclusively special education students, juvenile criminal offenders or children with drug and alcohol problems.

Earlier this year, the state board decided against sanctions for two such charter schools despite poor test scores. Rausch said the state needs guidelines for judging such schools if they are to receive exemptions from the state’s A to F grading consequences.

“There are certainly special circumstances that make our current accountability system difficult for some schools,” he said. “But simply saying we serve a different population of kids therefore the accountability system doesn’t work is incomplete.”

There are ways to judge all schools, Rausch said.

“A responsible authorizer should not simply say the state system doesn’t work, he said. “They should have their own rigorous system that says ‘these are the indicators we expect them to succeed on.’ There must be rigorous expectations.”

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.