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?”


Bronx middle school stabbing used as evidence in federal report calling for rollback of Obama discipline rules

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
New York City closed the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, where a student was stabbed to death, at the end of the school year.

A federal recommendation that school districts no longer be encouraged to reduce suspensions cites an unusual tragedy in New York City as one justification.

In a report released Tuesday, the federal school safety commission recommends rescinding the Obama administration’s discipline guidance that aimed to reduce suspensions, specifically for students of color. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to follow that advice soon, handing a win to the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools.

That campaign has pointed to the September 2017 murder of a Bronx middle schooler as evidence that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. In that incident, Matthew McCree, a 15-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, died after he was stabbed in a school classrom by a classmate whom he had reportedly bullied.

One footnote in the discipline section of the federal report cites a study by Max Eden, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, that concludes that changes in discipline policy in New York City between 2012 and 2016 caused school climate to deteriorate. Another cites Eden’s reported piece that contends that the stabbing happened because discipline in New York City’s schools had grown more lax.

“This change was in line with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise of putting city schools at the vanguard of a nationwide movement to unwind traditional discipline in favor of a new progressive, or restorative, approach,” Eden wrote in the story, which cites accounts from current and former teachers and students at the Bronx school.

The idea that less punitive discipline leads to less safe schools is not at all clear. While teachers in multiple districts have reported feeling hamstrung by new restrictions cutting back on suspensions, little research exists to make the case that their students have suffered — or to argue for alternatives such as restorative justice that the Obama-era guidelines urged, either.

Even less clear is how much difference changed federal guidance would make to New York City. Districts will be able to continue to pursue alternatives to suspension if they so choose. In continuing to promote alternatives to suspension, de Blasio could point to data showing that the city’s schools are largely safe. Under his administration, major and minor crimes have fallen, and the stabbing in the Bronx was the first murder in a city school in about two decades.

At the same time, the city has recently seen suspensions tick upward, even before the changed federal discipline guidance. Chancellor Richard Carranza last month attributed the new numbers to at least some misbehavior going unreported in the past. “Part of it is that people are actually now reporting everything, which I think is a good thing,” he said.

Yet even as Carranza appeared to give credence to some of the criticism of the Obama-era discipline guidelines, he emphasized another of the administration’s goals — ensuring that students of color are not punished excessively. In New York City, as in much of the country, black and Hispanic students receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

“The data that was released is jarring,” Carranza added. “It should make every single New Yorker ask the question: What is going on? We’ve actually been asking that question. We’re working on a series of things that we’re going to do to address the disproportionality.”

chronically absent

‘We’re doing it to help all of us’: In Newark, student-researchers ask their peers why they miss school

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Members of the New-Ark Leaders of Health research team. From left: Hansier Rodriguez, Kutorkor Kotey, KryJuan Roberson, Eric Bellamy, Israel Alford, Kayla Killiebrew, Simone Richardson, and Asiyah Marti.

With one in three Newark students considered chronically absent last year, a team of researchers has set out to discover why so many students are missing so much school.

To solve that riddle, the team has held focus groups and surveyed high school students at summer school programs, churches, and supermarkets. Many researchers have conducted similar studies, but this team is different — it includes students interviewing their peers about their shared struggles with attendance.

“We’re speaking in a language they understand,” said Manuel Mejia, a sophomore at Rutgers University-Newark who attended Newark’s Arts High School. “We’re not here to research them as a separate group — we’re doing it to help all of us.”

The research team includes students from Newark’s traditional, charter, and county-run high schools, alongside students from Rutgers University-Newark. They are part of a Rutgers-based program, called New-Ark Leaders of Health, where students aged 14 to 21 research public-health challenges and propose solutions.

Earlier this year, the 17-member team decided to focus on absenteeism. They considered it a matter of public health because of the dire consequences for chronically absent students, who tend to have lower grades and higher dropout rates, and are at greater risk of entering the criminal-justice system and facing poverty as an adult.

Newark suffers from unusually high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in a school year — the equivalent of about a month of class. Unlike truancy, which refers to unexcused absences, this category includes anytime a student misses school — whether because of illness, a suspension, transportation difficulties, or other causes.

Last year, 33 percent of students were chronically absent. In the first three months of this school year, about 22 percent of students already are, with more likely to join them as attendance typically dips as the year wears on. And yet, because absences can accumulate gradually as students miss a few days one week then another day weeks later, many never realize the academic danger they’re in.

“I was basically chronically absent and I did not know,” said student-researcher Kutorkor Kotey, an 11th-grader at Bard High School Early College Newark, who said she missed several days one month. “Our main focus is to bring awareness to people.”

The research project was funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Rutgers-based group that provides leadership training to Newark families and students. The students who were selected to participate earn a small stipend.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = rarely absent | Yellow = frequently absent | Orange = chronically absent | Red = severely chronically absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

In the spring, the team submitted a research plan to an institutional review board at Rutgers. After they tweaked a consent form to make it easier for high schoolers to read, the board approved it. By then it was summer, so the team targeted students in summer school and out in the community. They administered about 100 surveys and held two focus groups.

The student-researchers focused on high schoolers partly because those are their peers. But that is also the age also when chronic absenteeism spikes. Last year, nearly 40 percent of ninth-graders were chronically absent — a risk factor that greatly diminishes their odds of graduating on time.

To the average adult, that might sound like lots of students playing hooky. But the researchers knew from personal experience that many absent students would like to attend school — yet an array of obstacles often stand in their way.

“There’s always this narrative that people from Newark are perceived to be, from an outside perspective, lazy, poor, drug-ridden, and that’s why people are chronically absent,” said Simone Richardson, a Rutgers senior who helped lead the research team. “But what we’ve seen is that a lot of it is because of these oppressive structures.”

The researchers uncovered a heap of reasons why high schoolers miss school, from dentist appointments to unreliable city buses and concerns about gang violence on the path to school — or once they arrive. Often they are grappling with adult responsibilities, such as getting younger siblings to class or working after-school jobs, that make it hard to show up to school on time or at all.

One of the researchers, Eric Bellamy, who is in the 12th grade at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, described his own struggle to balance school and work. After classes end at 2:40, he rushes to a downtown seafood restaurant where he works as a cook and server from 3 to 9 o’clock, he said. It’s often 10 p.m. before he’s taken the bus home and can even think about homework.

As one of nine siblings, he said, he cannot rely on his mother to help pay for school-related expenses like a tuxedo and photos for prom.

“I’m not going to depend on my mom,” he said. “So I just have to thug it out and continue with the job.”

In some cases, schools themselves deter students from attending. Bellamy said school can sometimes feel like jail — “a cell that has more freedom,” as he put it. Other students mentioned strict uniform policies, unappetizing lunches, or ineffectual teachers that make them want to say away. Still others cited school policies that mark students absent after they have been late several times, and that block students with multiple absences from participating in extracurricular activities or even lead to suspensions, perversely adding to the days away.

“Schools don’t really get down to why that student is late,” said Israel Alford, a Rutgers senior who coordinates the research project. “Rather, they jump to, ‘Hey, let’s just punish this kid, maybe that will motivate them to come on time.’”

One of the main factors that the team heard time and again was mental health. Many students said they were coping with trauma or battling anxiety or depression. School guidance counselors are often overworked and under-qualified to address students’ mental-health needs, they said. Meanwhile, the schoolwork they must manage alongside their other responsibilities just adds to the stress.

Kayla Killiebrew, a 12th-grader at a charter high school run by North Star Academy, said she sometimes babysits her younger nephew on the weekends, which prevents her from completing her homework.

“Then I wake up in the morning stressed and I don’t want to go to school,” she said, explaining that she dreads having to tell her teachers she didn’t do her work. “There’s just so many factors in school that will add onto the stress I’m already having. So I’d rather just stay home and deal with it.”

The team is planning to conduct another round of surveys in high schools early next year, but first the group needs the district’s permission. They are hoping the new superintendent, Roger León, will sign off since he has said improving attendance will be cornerstone of his agenda.

Once the student researchers have finished gathering and analyzing their data, they intend to publish their findings along with policy recommendations. Their mission is to make sure that student voices inform any plan to improve attendance in Newark.

“Students know why they’re chronically absent,” Alford said. “The problem is that no one’s asking them.”