The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of English language learning: Schools struggle to adapt

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing at Enlace Academy.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

Jel Lu Too, a Burmese war refugee, was a 15-year-old living in a camp in Thailand until his family was uprooted earlier this year and he was placed in the seventh grade at Indianapolis’ Northwest High School.

He couldn’t read, write or speak English, yet during his first week of school, he was mandated to take Indiana’s state test because of state and federal rules.

About 56,000 English language learners living here face similar challenges as they transition to life in Indiana, including an expectation that they pass state tests just like their peers who have grown up with the English language. Helping them adapt to life and school in the U.S., while also getting them to pass tests, is a challenge for schools and teachers that is only growing. The number of English learners has swelled by nearly 70 percent in Indiana over the last eight years. Marion County has experienced a more than 200 percent growth in English learners since 2001 to about 13,000.

The changes have meant new hurdles for Indiana schools and teachers. Immigrant students often come to them with limited formal school, or interruptions since they were last in school. In many cases, their parents also don’t speak English.

At the same time the number of English language learners grew dramatically, funding per student to support programs to help them fell, making the job even tougher.

But in 2015, Indiana legislators more than doubled the funding for English language learning programs. Key lawmakers said their understanding of the problem was aided by a series of stories called “Lost in Translation” published in April as part of a joint project by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

Schools are stretched as the number of English language learners grows

The rapid growth of English learners has been a difficult adjustment for schools where the changes have happened quickly.

Indianapolis is at the center of this phenomenon, with 14 of the 25 schools in the state that have seen jumps of at least 20 percentage points of English learners since 2006 located in Marion County.

At Nora Elementary in Washington Township, the challenge seemed overwhelming to some teachers as they watched their school’s population rapidly change with an influx of immigrant students. The school had once received consecutive A letter grades from the state for its high student test score performance until its state letter grade plummeted to an F in 2011.

Today, 48 percent of Nora’s students are English learners, up from about 30 percent in 2005. As teachers learned to adapt to the new identity of the school, test scores began to rise, raising its grade to a C.

“Once you get into a groove, they grow,” said Nora Elementary school teacher Shawn Schlepp. “That’s great, but when you see them grow you have to move them again.”

Schools have tried to use teacher training to learn strategies to better help English learners. Some educators have gone back to college as their districts have grown, getting special certifications to teach English learners. Others are learning on the job.

Some techniques seem simple, like speaking more slowly and pronouncing words more clearly and deliberately. Others are more advanced, like changing lessons to get across the same concept or idea with more straightforward or tailored examples.

Improving teaching alone often doesn’t relieve all the stresses on English language learners: Students and teachers say English learners struggle with being accepted by their peers. Some students in Indianapolis said they were frequently bullied because of their heritages. Schools also recognized the need to do a better job of actively welcoming English learners.

“That’s one that we probably need to do a better job of, honestly,” said Jessica Feeser, who coordinates Indianapolis Public Schools’ programs for English learners.

IPS, which is redesigning its programs for English learners, has struggled to connect with parents who don’t speak English.

State, federal expectations cause challenges

At the same time immigration has rapidly changed Indianapolis schools, they’re also being held to much stricter state and federal requirements. That’s why Jel Lu Too was confronted with a standardized test he couldn’t read during his first week in an American school.

In 2006, federal authorities put Indiana and several other states on notice for not having a high enough expectations for English learners. At the time, schools could wait three years before requiring English learners take ISTEP. They were instead given an alternative exam and teachers could use portfolios to showcase students met standards.

After the U.S. Department of Education said Indiana’s system wasn’t adhering to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it simply began giving all students the same tests.

“Fairness isn’t a word that the federal government uses,” said Indiana’s testing director, Michele Walker. “They just say, ‘These are the requirements.’ It’s up to us to provide supports.”

Schools have found a controversial workaround to help English learners who can’t pass state tests graduate high school.

Students can graduate even if they don’t pass the state’s required 10th-grade English exam and a ninth-grade algebra test using waivers. To earn a waiver, students have to have earned at least a C in the subject, as well as get recommendations from their teacher and principal.

But in recent years lawmakers have urged school districts to curtail this practice, as some schools were using waivers to boost graduation rates.

All but two of the 54 students who earned waivers last year at Perry Township’s Southport High School were English learners. But Southport Principal Barbara Brouwer defended the practice.

“I cannot, in my heart of hearts, deny a kid a diploma because language was their barrier when they arrived and they can’t pass a state assessment,” Brouwer said. “There has to be some common sense. You have to consider where people start.”

Township, charter innovations seek to improve instruction

Some educators are taking on the challenge of serving more English learners by creating new programs that seek to capitalize on students’ potential to be dual-language speakers.

In Lawrence Township, a language immersion program at Forest Glen Elementary serves native Spanish speakers who are learning English as well as native-English speakers who want to learn Spanish. The program, which serves more than 650 kids, is a model for the state, which recently approved a grant program for schools who develop language immersion programs.

And a dual-language charter school that seeks to teach Indianapolis students for half the day in Spanish and half the day in English was recently approved by the Indiana State Charter Board.

Former Pike Township principal Mariama Carson, whose charter school will be called Global Preparatory Academy, said she wants half the students to be aimed at poor families including about half who are speak English at home and half who native Spanish speakers.

Carson said learning is often frustrating for English learners, but she wants them to see their potential as an asset.

“This is bigger than a second language,” Carson told WFYI. “It is the kind of instruction students have through a second language. I think that kind of opportunity is what many of my children (at Pike Township) needed but that is not the structure of a traditional, education program.”

Other Indianapolis charter schools are also focused on English learners.

At Enlace Academy on the city’s West side, 55 percent of the students are English learners. The students there are taught in a “blended learning” model. Students spend part of their time learning on computer programs, and the other half in small groups with teachers who reinforce the lessons and try to give students more one-on-one attention. There are two teachers per classroom.

Another charter school, Christel House Academy South, has nearly 25 percent of its students who are still learning English. The school uses a practice called “intervention,” which is focused on giving more one-on-one teaching and extra learning time to struggling students.

The school has had success using that strategy, boasting an 18-percentage point gain in 2012 on the number of English learners who passed both the English and math portions of the state ISTEP test than the state average for English learners.

Legislators respond to challenge with more aid

In response to the challenges, the Indiana state legislature made a last-minute decision in April to change the way it will fund schools for English language learners.

Lawmakers more than doubled the amount of money available to English learners to $22 million over the next two years. They also added a provision in the calculation for state poverty aid that gives extra money to districts with more than 25 percent of English learners in their total population. Few districts will qualify for that extra aid right away.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a series of stories about the struggles and growth of English language learners in Indiana helped elevate the issue among lawmakers.

“I think we’re all more reconciled to the point that this is really an amazing issue,” he said.

Charlie Geier, who runs the English learners program at the Indiana Department of Education, implored schools to use the new money to expand their services, and it seems some have embraced that message.

Districts with large numbers of students learning English as a new language, like Indianapolis Public Schools and Washington Township Schools, have moved to quickly expand their programs to add staff and support more services to students.

—Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.