Future of Schools

Indy achievement gap is wide, but a school known for its gardens is among those beating the odds

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Paramount School of Excellence is one of 10 schools cited for narrowing the income-based achievement gap.

Paramount School of Excellence had been open for two years when school leaders came to a realization: their students were lagging behind the state academically — and were not catching up fast enough.

That’s when school leaders decided to take a new approach, focusing their attention on constantly monitoring data on student academic skills, attendance and behavior, said executive director Tommy Reddicks.

“(It’s) a little irresponsible to your parent community if you’re gonna take the slow walk, if you can get there faster by paying a little bit more attention and being a little more aggressive about your academic approach,” Reddicks said.

It was an unexpected strategy for a school that’s known for keeping gardens and raising livestock, but 4 years later, it’s paying off. Paramount was one of 10 local schools lauded in a study released this week that measured how well schools and districts are helping low-income students compete with their better-off peers.

The Education Equality Index is a new comparative assessment of the income-based achievement gap in the 100 largest U.S. cities. The study determined the gap by comparing the test scores of low-income students to the average test scores of all students statewide.

(The organizations that released the report later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

The results for Indianapolis were mixed. The city has a wider gap than 66 percent of cities included in the measure, but the situation is improving. Between 2011 and 2014, the gap narrowed by 10 percent.

Fort Wayne, the only other Indiana city included, fared better, but it has not seen as much improvement recently. The gap was wider than 37 percent of cities, and it narrowed by 3 percent.

In addition to Paramount, nine other Indianapolis schools were highlighted for high scores among low-income students:

  • Christel House Academy – South
  • Cold Spring School
  • Ernie Pyle School 90
  • Francis W. Parker School 56
  • James A Allison Elementary School 3
  • The Oaks Academy
  • Sidener Academy for High Ability Students
  • Theodore Potter School 74
  • Tindley Collegiate Academy

The phase “achievement gap” commonly refers to the divide between white kids and their black and Hispanic peers, but the Equality Index only looks at the income-based gap. The index, which was funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, was produced by GreatSchools and Education Cities, a network that includes the Indianapolis-based Mind Trust.

“It is undeniable that we must do more to ensure that all Indianapolis children have access to an education that prepares them for success in life,” said David Harris, founder and CEO of The Mind Trust in a statement. “I’m excited to celebrate the success of schools we know that are closing the achievement gap, and look forward to growing what works so more children can benefit.”

The Equality Index declined to release data on specific schools, but Paramount’s success educating low-income kids is clear from scores on the state ISTEP test. While 84 percent of students at Paramount are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, they outperformed the state average pass rate last year by more than 10 percentage points.

Paramount also made huge progress narrowing the income achievement gap within the school. In 2014, the pass rate for better-off kids was nearly 20 percentage points above low-income students. Last year, the gap was just 5 percentage points.

Reddicks believes that it’s the school’s focus on using data that has made the improvement possible. The characteristics that set Paramount apart from the outside — such as an urban farm, a planetarium and a cheese making facility — are all tools to help students learn academic skills.

“There’s a lot of rigor, and a lot of intense work that we have to do to move kids from below grade level to at grade level in a calendar year,” he said. “They won’t survive that process if we can’t scaffold the process with excitement and real hands on experiences.”

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.