Who Is In Charge

Two struggling IPS schools could be 'restarted' next year

Shanae Staples, left, met with parents at School 69 Thursday to discuss her plan for restarting the school as Kindezi Academy.

Indianapolis Public School is likely to “restart” two long-struggling schools next year so that they will be run in partnership with newly founded charter schools.

Joyce Kilmer School 69 and Riverside School 44 appear set to join a growing cadre of schools in the IPS “innovation network.”

“Both of those schools have been chronically failing and underperforming for consecutive years,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “It’s not just been one year, two years — it’s been multiple years of underperformance.”

Ferebee’s team will recommend that School 44 be run by Global Preparatory Academy, the first charter school founded by former Pike Township principal Mariama Carson, and that School 69 be run by Kindezi Academy, a charter school founded by Shanae Staples and Kevin Kubacki, who also created the Enlace Academy charter school.

The IPS board will hear about these proposed partnerships next week, but Ferebeee does not expect the board to vote on them until a later meeting.

Both School 44 and School 69 were named “priority” schools by the district, and they have received extra support and resources since 2014. The possibility of restarting the schools with outside charter managers has been on the horizon for a while, and the district has been leading parent meetings to discuss improving the schools, district officials said.

Another reason the administration chose these schools for restart is because leadership is in flux at both schools, Ferebee said. The principal at School 44, Kirshawndra Davis, resigned effective July 1. School 69 has two part-time principals, who came out of retirement to lead the school.

“We believe that there are windows here that we need to take advantage of, of restarting schools that have really struggled in the past,” Ferebee said.

As innovation schools, School 44 and School 69 would convert to charter schools under contract with the district, but the state would attribute their student test scores to IPS. Teachers and staff at innovation schools are not part of IPS unions, so they do not share IPS employee contracts.

The move would be another step toward shared management with charter schools to try to turn around the lowest scoring IPS schools. The strategy has strong support from the school board but has raised concerns among some parents and school communities that the district is giving away control over too many schools.

“To really get the school where it needs to be, the school needs to be able to operate with the maximum amount of flexibility to make decisions,” said Aleesia Johnson, the district’s innovation chief.

Building a neighborhood charter school

School 69 has a long record of poor performance on state tests. It received F grades from the state for the latest four years available, and only 13 percent of students passed ISTEP in 2015. District administrators hope to partner with Kindezi to restart the Eastside elementary school, Ferebee said.

Kindezi is the brainchild of Staples and Kubacki, who received a fellowship from the non-profit Mind Trust to develop the idea. In 2013, the pair launched a charter school, Enlace Academy, that rented space in an IPS building. Last year, it became an innovation school, giving it access to district services. Kindezi will share the same philosophy of high expectations for all students and approach to teaching, Staples said.

But she emphasized that it won’t merely replicate Enlace. Kindezi leaders will work with parents and the community to craft a school to fit their needs. Like Enlace, Kindezi will use blended learning, with kids splitting their class time between online course work, teacher-led instruction and small student groups.

The charter school will be open to students from outside the neighborhood, but Staples said the goal is to mostly draw students who live near the school.

Staples said building good neighborhood schools is important to her because of her own experience in school. She grew up in a low-income, black neighborhood in Miami, she said, and her parents scraped together the money to send her to private school in another area. The school was transformative, she said, but it was like living a separate life from the one she had at home.

“I did miss out on that piece of being a part of the community, and being in a school where the culture reflected my own,” she said. “We want to be a neighborhood school. We want to be a community hub.”

A high-quality neighborhood school is precisely what Charron Perry, a parent at School 69, wants for her son.

When her son was in first grade last year, he had five different teachers, Perry said. She thinks School 69 needs more teachers and structure. But she kept her son enrolled because it’s their neighborhood school — the same school she attended as a child and the school where her mother used to teach.

“I’ve always loved School 69,” she said. “I wanted to keep him there because he’s in this neighborhood. He knows the kids in this neighborhood.”

Perry is excited about Kindezi because the new school plans to have two teachers in each classroom and an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.

“We do need a change,” she said. “I want to see what my son can do.”

Teaching kids in both English and Spanish

The proposed charter school partner at School 44 will also serve students in the neighborhood, but it will be a dual language school in which students are taught in both English and Spanish.

School 44 has three years of F grades from the state, and it is among a handful of schools in the district that had a single digit pass rate on ISTEP last year — only 14 students, 8 percent, passed both sections of the test.

Global Prep is led by Carson, who also received a Mind Trust fellowship to plan her school. As a principal in Pike Township, Carson — who is married to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis — helped turn around a low-scoring elementary school.

Global Prep aims to help students achieve the fluency of native Spanish speakers. Classes will have two teachers, a native Spanish speaker who will teach entirely in that language and a teacher who will lead lessons in English.

“In order for students to learn a language meaningfully,” Carson said. “It needs to happen when they are little, and it needs to be embedded in content and language.”

The dual-language program will begin in grades K-2, Carson said. Each year the school will add a grade until it is K-8. The school will continue to serve neighborhood kids in grades 3-6 next year, Carson said, but classes won’t follow the dual-language model because those students won’t have enough time in the school to gain fluency.

Carson initially planned to launch a charter school that would be independent from IPS, but last summer she began talking with district leaders about the possibility of running an innovation school in an IPS building. She decided to create an innovation school instead of an independent charter school in part because of the services the district could can offer — from busing and custodial care to special education, she said.

The students at Global Prep will be split about fifty-fifty between kids who speak Spanish at home and native English speakers, Carson said. To balance the population at the school, where only about 20 percent of students are native Spanish speakers, she recruited students from neighborhoods around its boundaries.

Most of the families Carson met with while she was recruiting were enthusiastic about an immersion school, she said.

“The economic benefit, especially for families in poverty that I spoke to is a big (factor),” she said.

A growing innovation network

Innovation schools are a relatively new idea, first authorized in 2014 by House Bill 1321. Although there are now several schools in the IPS innovation network, most were started from scratch or became innovation schools after launching as traditional charter schools.

The only school to convert from a traditional IPS school to an innovation school so far is School 103, which last summer was taken over by the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school network. Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn also received a Mind Trust fellowship to adapt the model at Phalen Leadership Academy to work in IPS schools. Llewellyn is no longer involved with the school.

Several organizations were interested in partnering with IPS at to create additional innovation schools, according to Ferebee. The selection of two more schools incubated by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based group that has been a strong advocate for change in IPS schools, demonstrated district confidence in its programs.

“These are two very, very talented and experienced educators,” said Steve Campbell, vice-president of communications for the Mind Trust. “The ideas that they have for our schools are exactly what we’re looking for — innovative, creative and with a commitment to high quality.”

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”

Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says

“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.