Future of Schools

Bill would forbid charter school gift card enrollment reward

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carpe Diem Meridian.

Legislation making its way through the Indiana General Assembly would make illegal an Indianapolis charter school’s controversial promotion giving out $100 gift cards to families as a reward for enrolling in the school.

House Bill 1638, which primarily focuses on expanding state takeover of failing schools, would forbid schools from offering gift cards to prospective students or families in exchange for enrolling at the school, or to any person who refers students to the school. The House passed it 66-31 on Feb. 25 and the Senate is expected to take it up this month.

Chalkbeat first reported in February about Indianapolis charter school Carpe Diem Meridian’s plan to increase enrollment in the school by giving $100 grocery store gift cards to anyone who refers a student who enrolls. Charter school critics said it was an inappropriate use of public money but the practice is legal.

“Charter school advocates and doubters both feel this gift card was an abuse,” said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. “It has the unique thing of being both the appearance and substance of impropriety. I don’t think there was much opposition to this and, frankly, there wasn’t much discussion of it.”

Giving gift cards as a reward for enrolling in charter schools has been declared illegal in at least one other state — Colorado — but until now Indiana legislators have not addressed the issue.

House Education Committee chairman Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he agreed with the proposed change to state law banning gift cards. But he said both charter schools and public schools need to be held accountable in how they spend money to recruit students.

“It was a probably a bad thing for schools to do, to offer gift cards or incentives,” Behning said. “We really shouldn’t be incentivizing parents based on gift cards to make the choice on what schools are best for their kids.”

Robert Sommers, Carpe Diem’s chief strategy officer, defended the charter school’s practice to Chalkbeat last month. He said spending money up front to attract students is worth it to reduce the cost it takes to educate students in the long run. Sommers did not immediately return requests for comment about the bill.

But Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said the bill should be expanded to prohibit schools from offering any item of value — including cash — as an enrollment incentive.

“People ought to come to you because you’re doing a good job, not because you’ve got a worm on your fishing rod,” Smith said.

Behning, who often spars over charter schools and education issues with Smith, who is a member of the Education Committee, agreed with him this time.

“I would agree that it should probably be more inclusive,” Behning said. “How do you legislate common sense?”


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.”