Future of Schools

Next crop of Indianapolis charter schools could have familiar faces, few newcomers

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students from Paramount School of Excellence's robotics team show off their skills at the Indiana Afterschool Network's Summit on Out of School Learning at the JW Marriott hotel in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis’ next wave of charter schools could come largely from longtime educators and established networks — a sign that the city’s charter sector might be maturing.

Four schools have indicated to the Indianapolis mayor’s office that they’re interested in applying for charters. Three would replicate existing school models: Paramount School of Excellence, Herron High School, and Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The fourth potential new school, a K-8 school on the southeast-side, comes from Mind Trust fellow Aleicha Ostler, the former principal of Indianapolis Public Schools’ SUPER School 19.

The interested schools bring backgrounds that include track records of success, years of education experience, access to deep resources, and support from politically influential players.

The familiar faces in this crop of charter school applicants suggest that Indiana’s 16-year-old charter scene is evolving, with more proven schools replicating across the city than in the past, when most schools were still new and untested.

The mayor’s office, which authorizes most of the city’s charter schools, appears to be looking increasingly to strong leaders with proven successes and intentionally targeted efforts — many of them already singled out and supported by the Mind Trust — in today’s competitive charter market.  

To be sure, many new ideas are still coming to Indianapolis. This spring, the state charter school board is also considering an application for an arts and vocational charter school from a longtime Indianapolis police detective seeking to help children affected by crime and poverty.

The potential new charter schools would open in fall 2019 at the earliest.

For those going through the mayor’s office, the schools would still have to submit full applications for approval, a process that started last month with their letters of intent and continues through June with interviews and public hearings.

Replicating Herron and Purdue Polytechnic would expand public high school offerings following IPS’ move to close and consolidate district high schools next year. Their existing schools fall under the district’s umbrella as innovation schools, but it’s too early to know whether any potential new schools could follow suit.

Purdue Polytechnic, run in partnership with Purdue University, has been planning to open a network of schools, and head of school Scott Bess said this is the first step to start expansion plans. He hopes to open a second school on the north side of the county, to eventually enroll up to 600 students.

Purdue Polytechnic opened its first school last fall with 150 freshman students, with more demand than it was able to accommodate, Bess said. The high school uses a new project-based curriculum focused on science and math skills, with a goal of serving low-income students and students of color.

The first high school plans to move into the former P.R. Mallory factory on the eastside if costly renovations can be worked out. Paramount could propose to open a middle school at the same location as a feeder to the first Purdue Polytechnic High School.

The project-based, hands-on philosophies of both Paramount and Purdue Polytechnic would make it “a natural fit,” Bess said.

“We felt there was strong synergy between their approach to STEM and our approach to STEM, so we thought the two models would serve each other well,” said Tommy Reddicks, Paramount’s executive director.

The existing eastside elementary Paramount School of Excellence uses a data-driven approach and is known for its urban farm. Paramount is working on opening a second school this fall, Reddicks said, also on the eastside.

The highly sought-after Herron High School, one of the city’s older charter schools, might seek to open its third high school focused on liberal arts with a classical education approach. Its second school, Riverside High School, opened last fall with 140 freshmen students and plans to move to the former Heslar Naval Armory on the banks of the White River.

Herron did not list a potential location for a third high school, which could open in 2020 and eventually enroll up to 500 students, according to the letter of intent submitted to the city. Herron officials did not return messages seeking comment.

The Mind Trust, a local charter school incubator and education nonprofit, has previously provided support to school leaders in all three of the networks seeking to replicate, in addition to Ostler as a current fellow.

The K-8 school that Ostler is interested in starting would open in the southeast-side neighborhood of Twin Aire. She wants to build off her experience at the nearby SUPER School 19, a magnet school incorporating physical movement into education.

She is using her two-year fellowship to develop a pitch for a school that would focus on design thinking, personalized learning, and postsecondary planning. Her concept comes from a concern that schools prepare students for tests, not careers in the real world.

“I don’t think as schools we’re really assisting with that problem,” Ostler said.

She noticed many students on the southeast-side were the first in their family to graduate from high school or go to college. For postsecondary planning, Invent Learning Hub will show students career options throughout the city, connect their passions and skills with careers, talk about how families can support students’ pathways, and follow up with students after they graduate from the K-8 school.

She also wants to dedicate a block of each day to design thinking, just like math and reading.

The Indiana Charter School Board is also considering a proposal from the HIM by HER Foundation, started by Indianapolis homicide detective Harry C. Dunn III. The nonprofit’s name stands for Helping Improve Mankind by Healing Every Race, and it began as an effort to address the vocational, educational, and mentoring needs that Dunn saw young black men facing in particular.

The HIM By HER Collegiate School for the Arts would be run by Wanda Riesz, a former school principal and Indianapolis Public Schools administrator, according to the school’s application. It would look to fill the void left by the closure of the Broad Ripple High School’s performing arts magnet program at the end of this year. It also would look to provide alternative education to fit the individual needs of at-risk students such as those who might be pregnant, expelled from other schools, or going through juvenile court.

The school would leverage community partnerships and teach Spanish to all students.

Riesz did not immediately return a message seeking comment. The school will undergo interviews and public hearings before the board decides in May whether to approve it.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.