charter schools

Best of 2014: As state prepares to list lowest-scoring schools, new high stakes for charters

For a picture of how Tennessee’s new charter school accountability law might play out on the ground, one might do well to look to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering.

The Memphis charter school, known as MASE, has been on the upswing since it was identified as one of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and placed on the state’s “priority list,” which consists of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state as determined by three years of test scores, in 2012.

The Memphis City school board recommended that the school — Tennessee’s first charter — be closed when its ten-year charter came up for renewal. But funders, parents, and teachers rallied to save the school, saying those scores didn’t tell the whole story. After hitting a low point in 2010-11, most of the school’s scores have gone up, and in 2013 MASE earned the state’s highest ranking on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures growth in students’ test scores, in three of four categories.

But unless MASE continues to post dramatically improved scores, it could find itself on the chopping block again. The law, passed this spring, mandates the closure of charter schools whose test scores put them on the priority list. That means that MASE must get out and stay out of the bottom 5 percent or risk being closed — and that schools that find themselves in MASE’s place in future years might not have the chance to turn their act around.

MASE’s story illustrates the problems legislators aimed to tackle with the new law — and suggests the challenges that come along with mandating closure for low-performing schools. Those challenges include the prospect of shuttering some schools that might actually serve students well.

“Even if it’s on the priority list, it doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t quality teachers,” said Tiffany Jones, the mother of four MASE students. “It doesn’t mean the students aren’t quality students.”

A new focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools

School quality was legislators’ main concern when they agreed to strict accountability rules for charter schools this spring. Under the new law, a charter school on the priority list will be subject to having its charters revoked after the end of the school year in which it isidentified as a priority school. That means schools on the new priority list released this summer could close as early as 2015.

The law also brings consequences for low-performing charter schools more closely into line with regulations about what should happen to low-scoring district-run schools. The state’s current school accountability system, enacted in order to win a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, makes schools in the bottom 5 percent eligible for a number of turnaround efforts. Those include placement in the state-run Achievement School District or in districts’ innovation zones, both of which may turn schools over to a charter operator as a strategy for school improvement.

In Shelby County, the district cited schools’ priority status in decisions to close 10 non-charter public schools this summer.

“If we’re going to close the bottom 5 percent schools, if we want to consider Shelby County schools for state takeover, we should definitely make sure the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent that are already charter schools are treated no differently,” said Kevin Woods, chair of the Shelby County school board. He said the board planned to take on low-performing charter schools even without the new law.

But state representative John DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis, said he thought the law was now harsher on charter schools than on public schools. District-run schools on the priority list can escape closure by being overhauled by new managers, but the law’s only stated remedy for charter schools is closure.

The current priority list includes three charter schools, but that may well climb when the new list is released because of charter schools’ share of the city’s schools is growing.

Filling a void in charter school accountability

National and local advocates applauded the legislature’s tough-love approach to charters. They say the law eases charter authorizers’ path to closing low-performing schools and will improve the quality of the charter sector in general.

“The law’s purpose is to stay consistent with the mission and intent behind the formation of charter schools: more autonomy for more accountability,” said Lee Harrell, the director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which backed the bill.

That was the bargain that MASE struck when it won the state’s first charter in 2003. But for the first decade of its existence, the school faced few consequences for declining performance.

Only when its charter came up for renewal last year did the school’s authorizer strive to hold the school accountable for boosting student performance. That’s because before the new state law, there was no prescribed approach for Tennessee charter school authorizers with low-performing charter schools.

“There needed to be clear guidelines and performance benchmarks to hold schools accountable. That process didn’t exist,” said Greg Thompson, the director of the the Tennessee Charter School Center, which supports the publicly-funded, privately-run schools. Thompson’s organization supported the legislation, which reflects a national trend of laws aimed at closing low-performing charters.

The fuzzy regulations are one reason that no Shelby County charter school has ever closed solely due to poor performance.

District officials recommended to the school’s board that MASE be closed in 2012, saying that the school “clearly no longer challenges students” and that it had strayed from its plans to deliver an extraordinary, STEM-focused curricula. But after the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a co-founder of the school, petitioned the board to consider the school’s upward trajectory, its seven years of solid scores, and its high graduation rate – and after legal counsel reassured the board that if the school was still struggling in two years, it could be shut down – the Memphis board voted 18 to 1 to keep it open.

Other Memphis charter schools have been closed for reasons that went beyond academic performance. Yo! Academy was shut in 2008 due to a combination of fiscal and academic concerns. Yo! Academy said it had not been given the chance to remediate students who came in far beyond grade level, and later sued the school district, claiming it had breached its contract —  a situation that TSBA’s Harrell said illustrated the need for the new law.

“A lot of time, in some of these areas, it’s been so difficult to close a school procedurally and legally,” he said.

Strict regulations, but questions about what they will accomplish

The new law leaves little room for interpretation. Any charter school on the new priority list will be slated for closure, pending a single public hearing to verify the data that landed it there. The only exception is for charter operators in the Achievement School District and those are already turning around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to trigger the automatic closure clause.

The law requires charter authorizers to establish a transition team to communicate regularly with students and families, ensure that all relevant parties know the school is about to close, and ensure that instruction is continuing for students who attend the school.

Families will also need to be informed about where their children can attend school once their charter school closes — a tricky task in Memphis, where 69 public schools, more than a quarter of the city’s total, are on the current priority list.

“When we were first placed on the list, students received letters about other schools that they could attend. But, believe it or not, when we looked at those schools, most of them were doing worse than us,” said Ketia Francis, who led MASE’s middle school turnaround.

MASE took a hit when it landed on the priority list. Enrollment plummeted, from more than 600 students to closer to 300. Close to 15 percent of the school’s teachers, including some top performers, left. Media attention spotlighted shortcomings. A long-standing partnership with Christian Brothers University ended. And declining enrollment brought a shrinking budget.

But parents and teachers rallied. Parent Jones, who drives her children 35 minutes to the school each day, said morale in the building remained high. Francis, then the new middle school principal, worked to change the school’s culture, hired new teachers, and started using a new series of interim assessments. Middle school students had extra math courses and tutoring. The school is planning to revamp professional development for teachers and renew its focus on STEM next year.

But the school’s struggle also spurred increased attention and investment from charter school supporters, including the Bioworks Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation.

MASE’s new executive director, Jammie Poole, argued that had the new law been in effect the last time the priority list came out, his school might not have had a chance to make improvements.

“It makes sense if the state creates this list and says, here’s what we want to see along the way, and then you can get off the list. Here’s the support to get off this list that you may need,” he said. “But if it’s just the list, and you close, I don’t know if that’s productive.”

Either way, he said, he is optimistic that MASE won’t be on the state’s new priority list.

“We’re rebranding,” said Poole, who previously led turnaround schools in Chicago and a network of schools in Massachusetts. “It’s been 10 years and a lot has happened. … But if you come back here in three weeks, you’ll see a different school.”

“This year, if we do what we anticipate doing, we will be off that list,” he added.

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”