Future of Schools

Pence's 2015 education plans on funding, flexibility raise questions

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row) at a special legislative corrections session last year.

Gov. Mike Pence’s plan for an “education session” of the Indiana General Assembly in 2015 won’t just be about his ongoing battle with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Pence’s made waves with his bombshell announcement Thursday that he would dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and ask lawmakers to reconsider Ritz’s leadership post on the Indiana State Board of Education.

But the rest of the education agenda that dominated his speech contained a half-dozen major new proposals to overhaul Indiana’s system of school finance, again expand access to charter schools, provide more money for private school tuition vouchers and add a new program he called “freedom to teach,” giving the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.”

Republican legislative leaders, who announced their own education priorities in October, said Pence’s ideas would be added to their discussions.

“We will review his proposals and many others fully in the legislative process, making sure that they are the right choices for Hoosier children,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “I am especially appreciative of the governor’s executive order to dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and hope that this decision will begin to address the discord we have experienced in education governance at the highest levels.”

Making up almost two-thirds of the state’s budget, education funding will be center stage in 2015, with questions about what constitutes “fairness” for urban, suburban and rural school districts being a focus for the state’s Republican lawmakers.

Speaking on a panel at the annual legislative conference, Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal funding amounts for every student in every school district. If Republicans push for more equal funding between wealthy and poor districts, he said, it will take money away from the schools need it most because poor districts in the state receive extra aid to educate children who come to school with more barriers to learning.

“To them, it’s money following the child,” Porter said of his Republican colleagues. “Well you know, if I’m a millionaire, I have money following me, but I don’t really need it.”

But Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, argued that parents in wealthier and suburban school districts pay taxes, too, and their kids’ schools deserve a more equal cut.

“All students are important,” Brown said. “And we want to raise the support substantially for all students in the state of Indiana to have an education opportunity.”

One change Pence proposed was an increase in “performance funding” — a way to reward schools with extra dollars for successes such as increased test scores, strong graduation rates, high ratings for teachers and A or B accountability grades. Brown said legislators are still discussing how the formula might change to include performance as a bigger factor.

“We had $30 million in the last budget in performance funding,” Brown said. “We’ll have to look at it if we want that amount, another amount or what the parameters will be so that you’ll be able to get performance funding. It’s a potential increase for schools who are doing a great job.”

Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, was skeptical about the need for performance to drive a larger portion of school funding, especially since he said he hears so often from teachers that they feel their hands are tied by so many standardized tests.

“We need to take a time out and just see how valid these measures are,” Lanane said. “At the end of the day, the question is what are the kids learning? Are they learning more than they did before we had all this comprehensive testing? I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Lanane also took issue with Pence’s “freedom to teach” program, saying the state should trust teachers and give them freedom from tests instead. He thinks the real goal might be to allow districts a way around union contract rules.

“I hope this isn’t just another fancy way of saying we want to limit the rights of teachers to collectively bargain,” Lanane said.

House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City said Pence’s proposal has a nice name, but it would have ill effects on teachers.

“‘Freedom to teach’ — those are just words,” Pelath said. “Those are words that were dreamed up in some think tank with pollsters sitting by their sides. That’s not about freedom to teach, it’s about deconstructing and deregulating schools to the point where they don’t matter anymore, and that’s what the goal is.”

A performance-based funding formula could have broad implications for Indianapolis Public Schools, where more of its schools earn F’s rather than A’s from the state.

But Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has already backed Pence’s plan for “transformation zone” turnaround efforts, complimented Pence’s agenda.

“Gov. Pence is pushing for bold strides in education,” Ferebee said. “We know all students are capable of excellence, and it’s time we all work together to ensure the greatest opportunities for success. As our governor introduces more initiatives to positively impact our public schools, IPS is now better positioned to lead our own transformation.”

Public school activists were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Phyllis Bush, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Northeast Friends of Public Education, said she is skeptical.

“This seems like an outright push to focus on merit pay, voucher expansion and charter school expansion,” she said. “Since Gov. Pence gave no specifics on costs, and since he cited no research on the effectiveness of these plans, this seems like one more blow to public schools in Indiana.”

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.”