restart?

Three IPS schools put on notice: schools could be ‘restarted,’ teachers made to reapply

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
School 63

Three more struggling Indianapolis Public Schools have been officially put on notice: They could be “restarted” next year and all of their teachers could be forced to reapply for their jobs.

School 42, School 63 and John Marshall Middle School were all named by the district as candidates for conversion to “innovation” status following years of low test scores.

That means the school’s teachers would no longer be represented by the IPS union and their principals would be given more flexibility over curriculum, school hours and budgets. The schools would be run independently from the district but, unlike charter schools, would still be responsible to the school board.

The three schools named today are the latest to face possible conversion as part of a district effort to improve chronically failing schools.

Already, three failing schools converted to innovation status over the last two years, but there is not yet much evidence of whether the approach will achieve the lofty aim of fixing failing schools. Leaders have enough faith in the strategy, however, that they are pursuing plans to continue restarting schools.

In addition to restarting schools, the district has also allowed two successful schools to convert to innovation status and several charter schools have joined the network.

The IPS board plans to discuss these latest innovation conversions this week and will make a final decision early next year, according to Aleesia Johnson, who leads innovation schools for the district.

All three schools facing restart have been on the district’s radar for several years. School 42, a north side elementary school, is an IPS “priority” school, which receives extra attention and training from the district, and School 63, a west side elementary school, is part of the “transformation zone,” a state funded program that aims to improve district high schools and the elementary schools that feed into them.

John Marshall is also a priority school. Test scores at the east side school have been dismal for several years and a group of parents called for the district to improve the school in June. If the board converts the school to innovation status, it would be part of a larger transition because the district already plans to reconstitute the school, which currently serves grades 7-12, as a middle school as part of a plan approved by the board in August.

The schools are up for restart because they each have three or more years of failing grades on the state accountability system, a benchmark set by the IPS board. (Four other low-scoring middle schools in the district are eligible for restart, but those schools were already set to be closed as part of the middle school reconfiguration.)

At John Marshall, School 42 and School 63, district leaders will look more closely at other measures of school quality, including whether students are showing improvement on state exams, before making their final recommendations to the board in January, according to Johnson.

Because the schools have had several years of failing grades, the Indiana State Board of Education will also be monitoring the plan for improving them, Johnson said.

“We are trying to make sure we have a strong plan that we believe … the state board will be in support of us implementing,” she said.

At the schools that could be restarted, the district has already begun to hold meetings with teachers and parents to discuss the schools’ future.

If the board decides to convert the schools to innovation schools, the next step will be choosing partners to take over management.

Johnson said the district hasn’t selected partners. But there are a few clear possibilities. Earl Phalen, who runs a charter network that manages two innovation elementary schools, has said in the past that the network plans to open a middle school on the east side at John Marshall or another campus.

There also are two planned schools that are possible candidates to take over schools 42 and 63: The leaders of Paramount School of Excellence charter school are aiming to start a second campus as an innovation school. And, a planned charter school called Ignite Achievement Academy presented to the IPS board in November. Both schools received planning grants from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that offers fellowships for leaders to plan innovation schools.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”