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.



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.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”