Future of Schools

Number of students overcoming barriers and detours to graduate from Excel Centers is growing fast

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nearly 200 students graduated from Excel Centers, a growing network of dropout recovery charters.

Teresa Gonzalez married young. Although she stayed in high school at first, Gonzalez soon miscarried and fell into a deep depression. In her senior year, she dropped out of school.

But after Gonzalez, 26, had three daughters, she decided to go back.

“They needed somebody to look up to,” said Gonzalez, who is now a pharmacy technician, of her children.

Finishing her education would make her a better role model, she thought.

On Thursday, Gonzalez was one of nearly 200 students who graduated from the Excel Centers, a network of dropout recovery charter schools run by Goodwill Industries. Including spring graduates, about 400 students in Marion County earned high school diplomas through Excel in 2015, according to the center.

That’s a dramatic boost for the Excel Centers, which graduated just 4 students in the first year they opened in 2010. Since then, the network has been growing its enrollment by hundreds of students each year and has now expanded to 11 campuses, six in Indianapolis. Statewide, 846 students graduated from Excel Centers in 2015, 33 percent more than last year.

The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.

In 2014-15, 92 percent of graduates earned industry certifications or college credit along the way. Most get jobs that make more money than they made before or go on to college.

Excel has fueled its growth by opening several new schools. In 2011, it opened four schools outside of Indianapolis. The same year, expansion was briefly stymied by a state law capping the number of dropout recovery charter schools at 11 — an effort to prevent the schools from drawing money away from funds primarily intended for K-12 schools.

But in 2014, the legislature shifted course, changing the law to allow new dropout recovery charter schools in years when the legislature allocates enough money to support them. 

Since then, Excel has grown even more, adding a new Indianapolis school and a Noblesville campus in August. The network is planning to open additional schools, though it has not released the locations. Last year an Excel Center opened in Tennessee and this year one opened in Texas. Goodwill locations in other states, and even in Canada, are looking at opening similar schools.

In their Indianapolis hometown, an Excel graduation is an especially jubilant, and sometimes emotional, scene for graduates who have waited a long time to wear a cap and gown.

At most high school graduations, the crowd of onlookers is filled with proud parents cheering on their children. But at Excel, it’s just as likely to see children fill the gym seats and crowd forward in the aisles to celebrate their parents as they receive diplomas.

Three out of five Excel students have children under 18. Like Gonzalez, many of those parents return to school not only to improve their job prospects but also to set an example for their children.

That’s also why Ryan Durrett, who has two young sons, decided to go back to school.

“I wanted them to look at dad and be like, ‘dad, I want to do the same things you did. I want to get my diploma and I want to work hard to get to where I need to go in life,'” Durrett said.

Durrett completed his senior year of high school in 2007, he said. But after he failed the exam required to graduate, he gave up and quit school without a diploma.

For years, he worked odd jobs. But after graduating from Excel, he is studying business at Ivy Tech Community College, and he plans to start his own beauty supply business.

He’s not intimidated by that challenge after overcoming all the barriers he had to cross to earn his diploma.

“It feels like a lot of pressure has been lifted off my shoulders,” Durrent said.

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.