Early education

In 3 years IPS tripled the size of its preschool, yet hundreds of spots remain unfilled

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at School 55

It was four weeks into the year for preschoolers in Indianapolis Public Schools, but it was four-year old Taysia’s first day in the program at School 55.

At an illuminated table full of translucent blocks, she stood with three other children intently building towers. The kids played quietly until — “Hey, that was mine!” a boy suddenly exclaimed.

With most of the blocks in use, Taysia had taken one from her playmate.

Teacher Carol Eberhart quickly stepped in to navigate the dispute and urged Taysia to ask her friends for a turn with the blocks.

“Maybe let’s ask together,” she said.

It may have seemed like an ordinary classroom squabble but Eberhart was teaching some of the most important skills that children learn in preschool. As she worked with Taysia and the other kids, she wasn’t just making peace. She was teaching conflict resolution, patience and the skills kids need to communicate with their peers.

If she does her job well, Eberhart said most of her preschool students will finish the school year with more of the soft skills it takes to succeed in school, including social skills.

“Eventually there will be six kids in the kitchen, and … they can cooperate and work together and take turns,” she said. “Patience, working together, using your words — right now that’s what they are really working on.”

Preschool is a big political issue across the state, with Indiana lawmakers and education advocates jockeying over how much to expand the state’s preschool pilot during the next legislative session.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest school district has more than tripled the size of its preschool program in recent years. By 2015, enrollment in IPS preschool had climbed to more than 800 kids from about 237 students in 2012, according to district data.

The program expanded so quickly, the district has struggled with filling all of the available spots.

Nearly a month into the year, the free IPS program still has 240 empty seats in classrooms that have space for a total of 845 kids, according to IPS curriculum officer Tammy Bowman.

The availability exists even as other free preschool programs are at capacity. A state and city program that uses a lottery to give vouchers to families for public or private preschool programs had thousands more applicants than available vouchers last year.

With 15 students enrolled, Eberhart’s class at School 55 still had room for five more kids.

The program is free for any student who lives within the district boundaries. IPS spends about $4,586 per student and the money to pay for the program comes from federal funding for educating low-income students, Bowman said.

In a district that serves many students who are already behind national standards when they enter kindergarten, leaders say that preschool is an essential tool for helping kids catch up.

When the district compared kindergarteners who went to preschool to those who didn’t in 2014-2015, it found that kids who had been to preschool were far better prepared to learn to read. Nearly half of IPS kindergarteners who hadn’t attended preschool were behind grade level when it came to early literacy skills such as recognizing the initial sounds in words, knowing the alphabet and vocabulary, Bowman said. In contrast, 68 percent of kids who had been to preschool had mastered those literacy skills.

Preschool can also be a way for new parents to learn what school will be like, Bowman said.

“It helps get families ready,” she said. “(Preschool) helps provide them kind of that bridge to getting used to the school experience and working with schools.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.