Future of Schools

Kids get to keep their business profits under winning school plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jeffrey Berry, Tiffany Thomas and Darius Sawyers receive applause after being named as winners at Teach Plus' InnovatEd conference.

A charter school that would let students create their own businesses and keep the profits was a money-winning idea at an innovation fair Sunday that three teachers hope will become a reality next fall.

The idea for the school, created by teachers Tiffany Thomas, Darius Sawyers and Jeffrey Berry, won at InnovatED, an event put on by the Indianapolis chapter of the national teacher advocacy group Teach Plus and education reform group The Mind Trust last weekend aimed at designing new schools. The group will split a $5,000 prize, and two of its members hope to bring the idea to the mayor’s charter school board this spring.

The teachers based their school on the biggest problem they see in education today, nationally and across Indianapolis: kids just aren’t connected to what they’re learning, and they can’t see how what they’re doing is relevant to their lives beyond high school.

“I think our idea is so innovative because it solves so many secondary issues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with school,” Sawyers, a high school science teacher at Fall Creek Academy, said.

The school’s design incorporates a few key programs that try to address the needs of high-poverty students. First, an Illinois company called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities pairs eligible students with mentors from the business community to design original businesses then launch and showcase them at a trade show at the end of the year. Students keep what they earn, which offers their families some financial support.

Although the school pays a fee to participate with CEO, the company raises money locally and pays its own way. Students can see a real-world application of what they’re learning, and the school doesn’t bear an additional cost.

Following an early college academy model

The school also models part of its structure off Dayton Early College Academy, a charter high school in Ohio that establishes six “milestones” students must complete during high school, including community service hours, research projects, job shadow opportunities, internships and other academic requirements. To pass each step,  students must present to and be approved by a panel of educators and community members. As a result, students do not follow traditional grade levels.

Finally, the school connects each student to a network of teachers, adults and other community members through the job shadows and internships. This advisory group would give students support in and out of school, which makes it more likely that they succeed, Thomas, a French teacher at Broad Ripple High School, said.

Her idea to blend these different programs came from presentations she saw at an education conference at the University of Indianapolis.

“I saw the DECA program present and the CEO program present and listening to them got me reinvigorated, got me excited again,” Thomas said. “Hearing from the (DECA) kids themselves really was everything. I was looking at those kids and thinking, ‘Those are our kids … they’re dealing with the same population and the same problems, but they’re having great success.'”

The school in Dayton looks similar to many in Indianapolis: Of its 436 students, about 90 percent are black or Hispanic and 80 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $43,500 or less. But data from Ohio’s state tests last year showed 100 percent of juniors passed in every subject on a state test, and more than 95 percent of sophomores passed.

To gain traction in Indianapolis, Thomas has been forging partnerships with local K-8 charter schools that don’t have direct feeder high schools. The goal is to locate the school on the city’s east side, where Thomas plans to visit apartment complexes to share information about the concept with families.

Casey Patterson, an InnovatED judge, said the winning group showed a level of research, commitment to academic rigor and fundraising know-how that put it above the others.

“I think they had a better idea of where they are heading and what students need,” said Patterson, a former Teach Plus executive director and principal from Brownsburg. “Yes, they need to be engaged. Yes, they need to like school. But they had an understanding that you need to hold kids to high academic achievement.”

Bringing community resources to needy children

Participants at the conference also chose a second winning idea, a community resource center in Avon, that received $3,000. Katie Mitchell, a special education teacher at White Oak Elementary School, said her group’s idea was born out of the demographic shifts happening in her community.

More students are coming from low-income families, she said, and the community doesn’t have the resources to fully to support them, in and out of school. Although she acknowledged that her school isn’t facing the same challenges as schools in Indianapolis, she said that the community has virtually no support services available, so they want to be proactive in addressing problems as they occur.

“It’s not a topic that people are talking a whole lot about yet,” Mitchell said. “As teachers, we see it coming, we’re starting to see those students. Our idea isn’t innovative for the nation, but it is for our area and the population we’re serving.”

Mitchell said she and her colleagues will use the money to develop a pilot for the center in one of the district’s unused trailers. At the center families can learn how to help their kids with homework and receive other services, such as food, clothing, counseling and access computers and Internet. The center will also host workshops for parents on new academic standards, CPR training, GED classes or English-language classes.

Last year, the school created a neighborhood initiative called Traveling Teachers, which sent teachers out into the community to form relationships with families. The center would be a way to expand on those efforts.


Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”