Future of Schools

New software aims to make teachers’ jobs ‘much easier’ in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools use a motley collection of tools to track student grades, from paper notes to Excel spreadsheets. When it comes time to send home report cards, they have about a week to go through the tedious process of entering those grades into the school database.

“And of course, it’s really, really slow because everybody is trying to do it all at once,” said Laura Larimer, Chief Information Technology Officer for the district.

That’s one of the problems IPS is aiming to solve with a new learning management system for classrooms across the district. It recently approved a contract that could cost up to $136,859 for the first year with a New York-based company called Schoology and plans to roll out the system this August.

Schoology is a platform for teachers to share readings, multimedia materials and assignments with students, give feedback on work and track grades. A selection committee that included teachers chose Schoology in part because it directly links with the student information system, eliminating that step.

“We wanted teachers to be able to have technology do work for them instead of them having to do work for technology,” Larimer said. “There was a natural kind of integration that made the teacher’s job, much much easier.”

The district will rollout the software at the majority of schools this fall, although seven schools chose to use other programs. It’s part of a districtwide move to improve technology that included the purchase of more than 10,000 new computers this year and upgrades to wireless technology in schools, Larimer said.

The contract includes a $20,000 fee for initial implementation and training as well as a $116,859 annual user fee. The software will replace the ANGEL Learning Management Suite, a now-defunct application originally created in Indianapolis. The district solicited bids from five providers and received four responses, ranging in cost from $133,400 to $352,500 for districtwide use.

Schoology is similar to learning management programs such as Blackboard and Moodle, but it offers additional social and content sharing tools, said Chris Arvanitis, National Solutions Director for Schoology. Educators can use it to share assignments with colleagues, department wide or even with users in other schools and districts.

“One of the things that really separates schoology,” said Arvanitis, “is our focus on communication and collaboration.”

The district will offer training for interested teachers during the summer. Once the year starts, each building will have educators who are familiar with Schoology who can train their peers.

Using the website is similar to Facebook, so the district expects the learning curve to be relatively easy for students as well as teachers, said IPS staffer Debbie Babcock.

“A lot of teachers like the look and feel,” she said. “It has a very familiar feel.”

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.”