Future of Schools

New state board members talk Glenda Ritz, testing, state takeover

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Michele Walker, who heads Indiana's state testing program for the Indiana Department of Education, speaks to the state board earlier this month.

A major overhaul for the Indiana State Board of Education this week, fueled by a change in state law that prompted five new appointments, means new people bringing new opinions to the debates about key issues.

But what do the new board members — a retired superintendent, an online school principal, an energy company official, an assistant superintendent and the CEO of an education non-profit — believe about the big questions facing Indiana’s schools?

Chalkbeat asked each new board member about the same four issues: state takeover, testing, A-to-F grading and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s leadership.

Gov. Mike Pence said his appointments — three new board members and five holdovers — were driven more by state law requirements that dictate where state board members must live, their backgrounds in education and their political affiliations than anything else. Two other new board members were appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Pence said Thursday he was grateful for the work of those who stepped down or were not reappointed, and he expected the new board would have a positive influence. The board has struggled through turmoil driven by disagreements over policy and procedures the last two years.

“I truly believe this will provide a fresh start for the state board of education,” Pence said. “The reappointments and appointments I think represent a new blend of individuals that I think are going to bring renewed energy, fresh perspective and a level of experience that I’m confident is going to help the board refocus on student achievement.”

Here is where the new board members said they stand on four key questions:

SHOULD INDIANA CONTINUE TO TAKE OVER FAILING SCHOOLS?

Steve Yager, retired superintendent from Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne

Yager said he wouldn’t talk about current state takeover practices until he was able to learn more.

“I’m not well read enough on that to have an opinion before I even take a seat,” Yager said.

Byron Ernest, the head of schools for the online charter school network Hoosier Academies

Ernest has experience with state takeover — he served as the principal of Manual High School in Indianapolis from 2013 to 2014 after it was handed off by the state board to be run by Charter Schools USA.

He said he doesn’t think the current system is necessarily the best one.

“If a school is not performing then I think it’s in the best interests of our students that we put that school in the best position to not be failing,” Ernest said. “Now does that mean that the takeover has to look like what I went to at Manual? No, not necessarily.”

Eddie Melton, community relations manager at Northern Indiana Public Service Company

Melton said state takeover should be a last resort.

The state board, he said, should think about “what can we do collectively to help support school districts so that they can build the systems to be successful.”

He said he didn’t have an opinion about takeovers the board has approved in the past.

“Not being a part of the process in the past, I’m not sure what was done in terms of that,” he said. “So I can’t judge the past of the decisions made. I can just give my perspective moving forward.”

Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead The Way

Bertram said he is a strong believer in accountability but thinks the state needs to take a hard look at whether its current intervention strategies are working. He said he doesn’t know the answer.

“I want to ask us to look deeply at the evidence,” Bertram said. “I think we need to ask ourselves tough questions every day and we need to confront the realities of those answers. Whether it’s a takeover or any other accountability measure, it’s critical we have that kind of introspection.”

Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township

Kwiatkowski has more background in state takeover than any board member: she once oversaw the process for the Indiana Department of Education.

In 2011, it was her recommendations the board used when it severed four Indianapolis Public Schools and one school in Gary from district control and handed them off to be run independently.

“They were having tremendous problems,” said Kwiatkowski, who visited all of the schools.

Still, four years after she left that job, Kwiatkowski said she need to brush up on everything that’s happened to those school since before making up her mind if the strategy should be used again.

“I think it would be very important as a board member to look at has it been successful or not,” she said. “I believe every school is very unique.”

HOW WOULD YOU CHANGE ISTEP?

Yager

Yager said he wanted the board to look at a variety of options for moving forward with ISTEP, and he supported a push for a shorter test.

“I’m in favor of shortening the process, but I also know we have to follow federal guidelines,” he said.

Ernest

Ernest thinks Indiana should be able to chart its own course on tests, rather than simply follow what other states are doing.

“I tend to lean on that we need to be doing what’s right for Indiana,” Ernest said. “So that means if we need to individualize that for Indiana and not use something that is ready-made, out-of-the-box to use, then we need to do that.”

Melton

Melton promised to brush up on this issue as well.

“I would definitely want to come in and really study the issues and concerns,” Melton said. “At this point I don’t have any recommendations. I would really be very open into learning more about (educators’) concerns so I can better assess.”

Bertram

Bertram said he believes the current ISTEP exam doesn’t capture a comprehensive picture of student performance.

“The bigger question is how do we effectively measure the outcomes we’re interested in, and are we measuring the right kind of outcomes?” Bertram said. “Is there something better for our students and are we willing to make that kind of commitment? What evidence do we have that any gain on ISTEP is an indicator of improved performance beyond school?”

Kwiatkowski

One thing Kwiatkowski is sure of, as an assistant superintendent in Warren Township, is that Pence was right to complain about the length of ISTEP in February.

“Shortening the time for ISTEP is something we need to do,” she said. “This year ISTEP drug on too long. It affected every student in our schools. Schedules had to be changed. We really had to make adjustments.”

IS AN A-TO-F SCALE A FAIR WAY TO JUDGE SCHOOLS?

Yager

Yager co-chaired with Ritz a committee that made recommendations to the state board that led to the newly retooled A-to-F grading system it approved earlier this month. He said he thinks it’s far better than the one it replaced, especially when it comes to measuring how students have improved.

“I don’t know that there is a perfect answer to the testing situation and how kids should be tested,” Yager said. “But I know that what we have proposed is something that is a lot more fair.”

Ernest

Test scores can only tell us so much, Ernest said. Accountability for schools is important, but it shouldn’t rely solely on what the state can see on tests like ISTEP. Other factors, like classwork, attendance and five-year graduation rate can also provide information about students and understanding about how schools are serving them.

“I just think we need to adapt the accountability to where we are and what we’re doing,” Ernest said. “So, looking more at the student and then what the school is able to do with those students while they have them in their care.”

Melton

Melton said he want to hear more about what people have to say about A-to-F grading.

“That’s something I would definitely want to learn from the community from various parts of the state,” he said.

Bertram

Schools, Bertram said, need freedom and support, and then they can be better judged on their efforts.

“If we’re going to hold schools accountable we (need to be) giving them the resources necessary to effect change,” Bertram said, “the freedom to work outside of a system that’s been proven to not be highly effective.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiakowski said getting A-to-F grades right, so they are useful to parents and schools, is critical.

“It’s an easy way for parents to understand,” she said. “We really have to make sure the criteria to put grades on schools are looking at the right thing.”

For her district, the grades have mostly seemed fair, Kwiatkowski said.

“They’ve been a pretty good match for us,” she said. “We have some years that we may have some unique circumstance that we think are not fair that one year but overall (the grade were) pretty fair matches.”

HAS GLENDA RITZ BEEN A GOOD LEADER AS STATE SUPERINTENDENT?

Yager

While Ritz has been in office, Yager said he’s only attended a couple state board meetings. He wouldn’t comment on Ritz’s effectiveness as board leader, he said he respects her focus on students.

“She really cares about kids and learning, and I respect that a great deal,” Yager said. “That’s kind of the same thing that I’m interested in — children learning, and girls and boys and what’s best for them.”

Ernest

Petty arguments and politics have no place on the board, Ernest said, no matter who is the leader.

“I think we’ve got to drop that at the door,” he said. “I was appointed by the speaker to, again, help drive good policy, good procedures for Indiana education, and so I’m going to work with whoever is in that position.”

Melton

Melton was the one new board member who said unequivocally that Ritz was doing well.

“I think she’s done a great job in this role,” Melton said. “I’m looking forward to working with her and the entire board.”

Bertram

Bertram said he was eager to begin working with Ritz.

“I would not have accepted this opportunity if I wasn’t interested in working with Superintendent Ritz,” Bertram said. “This is going to require a great deal of collaboration. I look forward to sitting down and finding ways to work together to realize our state’s potential. She has a significant job ahead of her as well as an amazing opportunity to lead education in the state. I think it’s our obligation as a state board to help support that effort. I’m looking ward to sitting down with her and listening and being part of this journey moving forward.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiatkowski said she has not closely followed state board discussions since leaving the education department. Ritz’s impact on education was hard to judge even for someone who works in public schools, she said, as many factors have been at play.

“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve had new standards and new assessments. We’ve had different issues with funding. All of those are complex issues for districts. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say are we better or not better.”

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.