Early Childhood

City reshuffles education staff as Jason Kloth departs

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth looks on while Mayor Greg Ballard speaks at a December 2014 rally in support of his proposed preschool tuition program.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office overseeing education programs and charter schools is undergoing a transition.

Friday is the last day of work for Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth, who came in 2012 from Teach For America to the newly created position of deputy mayor for education. He’s headed to a new post focused on improving workforce development for a non-profit.

Brandon Brown, who oversaw charter schools in Kloth’s office, left earlier this month for a job as vice president of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis non-profit that works to spur innovation and change in education.

Kristin Hines will now oversee charter school work for Ballard. Hines was an academic and policy analyst for Ballard’s charter school office who previously worked at the Indiana Department of Education. The Purdue University graduate also taught through Teach For America in Texas.

The changes come seven months after Ballard announced he would not run for re-election. Democrat Joe Hogsett and Republican Chuck Brewer are running to replace him. The election is Nov. 3.

Kloth’s next job is focused on finding ways to smooth the transition from high school to college, technical education or jobs, and to ensure students enter the workforce with the skills employers are demanding. The role is a new effort of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, a collaboration of the leaders of top companies, universities and philanthropic groups in the city.

Kloth was just 31 and working in Washington, D.C., as Teach For America’s senior vice president when Ballard tapped him as deputy mayor. The Champaign, Ill., native was sent by Teach For America to teach sixth grade in Texas near the Mexican border after graduating from the University of Illinois. Teach For America is a national organization that places recent college graduates as teachers in low-income schools nationwide for two-year stints.

Kloth came to Indianapolis in 2008 as the first local executive director when Teach For America began placing teachers here before leaving for the Washington office in 2010. Before becoming deputy mayor for education, he turned down a similar job in Chicago.

At the time, Ballard cited Kloth’s “national-level credibility” in the education reform debate.

As deputy mayor, Kloth led four key efforts: establishing a city-backed preschool tuition program, growing the mayor’s stable of charter schools, closing down troubled charter schools and helping craft laws to support the mayor’s efforts to improve schools.

The preschool program, announced last summer, was not fully approved until March after objections from City-County Council Democrats about the proposed funding method. The final plan, however, is one of Ballard’s signature accomplishments: a five-year, $40 million public-private partnership to pay preschool tuition for poor children. The city approved the first $4 million of an expected $20 million contribution this year. The rest was raised by business and philanthropic groups.

The program saw huge demand with about 5,000 applicants for 1,300 spots for the first year.

“We think there will be a substantial return on investment, especially for low-income children,” Kloth said.

On charter schools, the mayor’s office sponsored 22 at the start of Ballard’s term but will oversee 40 charter schools by 2017. The rapid expansion comes even after five mayor-sponsored charter schools closed down.

Two of those schools closed amid raucous debate.

The Project School was shut down because of academic and financial difficulties just weeks before the start of the 2012-13 school year, and Flanner House School closed last fall amid allegations that adults cheated on the state ISTEP test by changing student answers.

The others — Andrew Academy, Padua Academy and Monument Lighthouse — decided to close, merge or convert to private schools after consultation with Kloth and his team about poor test scores.

Kloth said holding charter schools accountable when they don’t live up to expectations and expanding those that do well are critical to the mayor’s charter school work.

“It’s important to ensure those who receive charters meet the promises they laid out to students, neighborhoods and the taxpayer,” he said.

Kloth also played a role in crafting new state education laws.

He worked with Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee and legislators on a bill that gave the district more flexibility to partner with charter schools or other outside organizations to overhaul low-scoring schools.

He also helped push through a law that passed late in this year’s legislative session to require Marion County schools to report more data on discipline broken down by race and ethnicity in response to concerns that some groups — notably African-American boys — were routinely disciplined more harshly at some schools.

In his new role, Kloth said he hopes to find strategies to close the gap between the 54 percent of jobs in Indianapolis that require some higher education and the 47 percent of people who qualify for those jobs.

The difference results in higher poverty and a missed opportunity for the state, he said.

“This issue deserves dramatically more attention than its receiving,” he said. “How can we assure students can transition form high school with the certification they need, or to a path to technical education or a two or four year degree, so they can enter the middle class and have a meaningful career?”


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”