Innovation

Leaders at IPS arts magnet say becoming an “innovation” school will add even more art to the day

PHOTO: Penny Guthrie
Fifth grader Arael Stigler (left with the microphone) performs the role of Rafinki from the musical The Lion King.

At Edison School of the Arts, elementary students can join a drum ensemble, master drawing or star in a musical. But some educators at the popular magnet school say that’s not enough.

They want math and reading teachers to build the art into their courses. They want the arts filtered into science and social studies.

That’s why the K-8 school is angling to become one of the first Indianapolis Public Schools allowed to adopt a new governance model, free from the mandates that the district imposes on most of its schools.

“Our arts teachers are fantastic and our academic teachers are fantastic,” principal Nathan Tuttle told the Indianapolis Public Schools board at a meeting earlier this month. “But we do not implement full arts integration in the academic classroom as it stands right now, because there’s not a lot of funding to train all of our academic teachers in arts integration.”

The innovation school model, which gives principals many of the flexibilities of charter schools but keeps the school within IPS, was introduced in the district last year.

If Edison’s application to become an innovation school is approved by the board, it would be one of the first higher performing schools to do so.

The school would be following in the footsteps of the Cold Spring School, an environmental science magnet school that became an innovation school earlier this year as a way to give teachers more time to focus on science.

Innovation schools leaders have full control over their funding, so they can make choices like what curriculum to use and what teacher training fits their needs. The teachers are not unionized, however, which is controversial and allows leaders to make decisions like extending the school day without negotiating with a union.

The move would be the latest big change for the arts magnet school, which recently moved from the north side to the southwest side and added middle school grades. At least some teachers and parents are eager for the school to have the freedom that would come with the conversion.

Kathy Gaalema, a second-grade teacher who has worked in the district for 33 years, told the board she supports the plan because it could give teachers more time to focus on art in academic classes and more tailored training.

“Being an innovation school would allow great opportunities for us,” she said.

Candace Kingma, a parent and president of the parent-teacher organization at Edison, also told the board that she trusts the school leadership and supports the change.

“An arts education can enhance a child’s overall learning,” she said. “It’s also my belief that a move to an innovation school will greatly enhance our arts program.”

Edison is looking to convert to innovation status voluntarily beginning next fall. It’s still early in the process, and the board is not expected to make a decision for several months. If the school is converted to innovation status, it would be overseen by a nonprofit board Tuttle is currently assembling. The IPS board would cede day-to-day control, but it would be able to cancel or renew the agreement based on the school’s performance.

Edison would be only the third IPS school to convert to innovation status by choice. Although there are several existing innovation schools in the district, they are largely charter schools that joined the network or failing schools that were restarted with new managers.

Innovation schools are part of a broader vision for the district that aims to give all principals more power over how schools are run. Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools, said the long-term goal is to create better performing schools across IPS.

“When the people who are most connected and closest to our students and families have the ability to make decisions,” she said, “that will positively impact the experience our students have.”

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”