In the Classroom

With its jackpot $28.5 million grant, Warren Township pushes career programs, online learning and teacher training

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Davoni White (left) and Chris Patterson (right) rush to set up a camera in one minute during an advanced studio production class at Warren Central High School. The FrontRunner studio (pictured here) was funded by the Race to the Top grant.

Three years ago, Warren Township got a lucky break when it was one of just 16 school districts nationwide to win a big federal Race to the Top grant.

The district walked away with $28.5 million for its goal of more closely connecting what its schools teach to the individual needs of its students.

The district has used the money to try out a host of new ideas. It added state-of-the-art facilities to the career center at its high school, added a computerized system to keep students learning even if they are kicked out of school and poured money into training teachers.

But the district isn’t stopping there. Before the grant dries up in 2017, Warren hopes to use the money to add “blended learning,” a system that mixes teacher-led lessons with individual work on the computer, to all of its elementary, intermediate and middle schools.

“The grant has helped us build the wings of the plane before we take off rather than try to take that plane off and build the wings at the same time like a lot of districts around us are forced to do,” said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent of educator effectiveness.

Warren Township has the fifth largest enrollment of the 11 Marion County school districts with 12,100 students, many of which face the same learning barriers that students in other high-poverty districts battle.

More than 70 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four means less than $43,500 in annual income. In IPS, by comparison, about 75 percent of students qualify, and statewide the figure is about 49 percent.

Three of its nine elementary schools earned a D letter grade from the state for low test scores, including the once high-rated Sunny Heights Elementary School. Two of its three middle schools earned a D. Warren Township High School earned a C on its last state report card.

The grant was intended to spark innovation in school districts with these sorts of challenges and help them turn the corner to better student outcomes. Race to the Top school district winners were expected to find ways to personalize learning for students, especially using technology, that other districts around the country could learn from.

“The goal with Race to the Top was to really gain some momentum and spearhead this effort to personalize learning for students,” Russell said. “We’re not talking about a magnet school. We’re not talking about just one school out of our 18 sites. We’re talking about, as a district, committing to personalized learning.”

One example are changes at the Walker Career Center, which is attached to the high school.

A ‘real-world’ experience

Gabbi Mitchell stood shoulder to shoulder with professionals and did exactly the same work to produce videos during the VEX Robotics competition in November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

She’s not getting paid, but you could argue her work is semi-professional. Mitchell has a job with a tiny student-run video production company called FrontRunner, which is housed at the career center.

Last week, FrontRunner was gearing up for its second time covering Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that takes over Downtown Indianapolis each August.

The school district spent $1.7 million from the Race to the Top grant to build a state-of-the-art studio equipped with a green screen, seven high definition cameras and a production trailer for students working in the field.

The idea for FrontRunner originated with Dennis Jarrett, who spent about a decade working in television at RTV6 before transitioning to teaching.

Students were doing live broadcasts and “real journalism” before the grant, Jarrett said. But he wanted to add a layer to the real-world experience they were getting. Now, organizations like Gen Con and VEX Robotics actually pay FrontRunner to produce videos during their events – money Jarrett hopes will keep the program going once the grant runs out.

“After this year, we have to be self-sufficient,” Jarrett said. “So what we’re able to do with the monies that we’re making is ensure that we can sustain this after the grant is done.”

For the students, Jarrett teaches video production classes during the school day. After school, they apply what they’ve learned in their work for FrontRunner.

“We’re outfitted on the level of any other production company or TV facility here in Indianapolis,” Jarrett said.

The Walker Career Center is home to more than 20 career-focused electives, from engineering to cosmetology. There is a fully functioning restaurant on site where students create, prepare and serve the food.

“It exposes these kids to something while they’re in high school and maybe it’s not for them,” Jarrett said. “Maybe they don’t like the fact that TV isn’t all glamour. Maybe they don’t like the fact that they have to spend four hours setting equipment up. So it exposes them to a career path while they’re still in a position to make a decision – they can change.”

Mitchell, 17, said she hopes to study broadcast journalism at Syracuse University – one of the best programs in the country – and would love to work at a network like CNN as an anchor or correspondent.

“I can do anything around here,” Mitchell said, sitting in the studio’s control room. “I can be on camera. I can use the camera. I can edit. I can do replay. But the thing I enjoy the most is capturing a story. I feel like everybody has a story and it just takes the right person to see it.”

An alternative to expulsion

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Warren Township schools had expelled nearly 70 students and Superintendent Dena Cushenberry was frustrated.

The district needed an alternative to kicking kids out.

“My charge was, ‘How do we keep these students in school?’” Cushenberry said. “Maybe not in the school environment, per say. But how do we continue their education even though they’re not in the four walls of Warren Central High School or a middle school?”

Now they have an alternative thanks, again, to Race to the Top.

Today, when students are suspended and facing expulsion, the district’s Director of eLearning John Keller offers them a choice: stay in school by agreeing to take online courses or continue down the road to expulsion.

No longer are those students missing out on an education. For some of them, they’re even making it to graduation.

Since the program launched in October, 26 students have agreed to take online classes rather than be expelled. Two graduated on time this past spring. Seven earned credits.

But not doing the work is equivalent to agreeing to the expulsion.

“It doesn’t always work,” Cushenberry said. “You have some students that don’t want that. We try to make sure that everyone still has access to an education even when they think they don’t want it.”

Most of their school work can be completed at home, but the students take all of their tests at the district’s central office. Some students find the program suits them and they communicate with Keller often, he said. But he doesn’t hear from others after a mandatory orientation.

“The ball is very much in the student’s court,” Keller said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, this track goes over the cliff to expulsion and this track stays on the rails. But it’s pretty much all you now in the sense that this is your time to be an adult about your learning and it’s going to take some initiative. I’m not going to call you and get you out of bed.”

A new kind of teacher

"I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers. And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it."Ryan Russell

Making greater use of online learning has also meant more learning for teachers, some of whom are more adept at using new technologies for instruction than others.

In the past two years, the district has paid for more than 50,000 training hours for its teachers and administrators.

“I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers,” Russell said. “And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it.”

Most of the money from the grant has been spent, one way or another, on the more than 700 teachers in the district.

Russell said Warren wants students working at their own paces and seeing real-time results.

In many cases, that means teachers have to change the way they teach, which is the most challenging part of the process, he said.

“We as teachers were trained to kind of command and control a classroom – to be up front, a sage on the stage,” Russell said. “But personalization and blended (learning) really requires you to shift your role into more of a facilitator and a coach.”

Younger children, the district has learned, actually have a lot of understanding about how technological tools work and quickly learn how to use them for school work. So the district wants to connect that understanding directly to their lessons.

“We know that kids right now in kindergarten – all they know is technology,” Cushenberry said. “We had to figure out, ‘How do you make education relevant for the students of this generation?’”

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis district became a national model for teacher leadership

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, a teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

Kelly Wilber had been teaching in Perry Township for about seven years when the school district rolled out a new approach to teacher evaluation, mentorship, and coaching — and she felt the change almost immediately.

“I felt like I was a good teacher before,” Wilber recalled. “I mean, I studied all the things in the books, and we had professional development.”

But when the district started using the new approach, the TAP System, “we found the answer of what we needed to do to help our students grow,” said Wilber, who teaches fifth grade at Southport Elementary School.

The TAP System was developed as a strategy for improving instruction, and it is popular in Indiana, where state policymakers have encouraged schools to adopt the system. Perry Township has used it for seven years, and the district has become something of a poster child for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the group behind TAP. On Thursday, the nonprofit recognized Perry Township schools with the organization’s first National Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness, which came with a $50,000 prize.

TAP relies on mentors and teacher leaders who are paid stipends to coach their colleagues — a tactic that’s becoming popular among schools as a way to allow experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without entirely leaving the classroom. Each week, groups of teachers meet with master teachers who work with them on strategies they can use in the classroom, like how to tackle word problems or use manipulatives in math.

The model also has guidance on common problems teachers encounter. In the first year of TAP, for example, Wilber had a student who said he wasn’t interested in school or homework and told her, “I’m only here because my brother came here, and I like to do what my brother does,” she recalled.

Wilber began trying techniques that TAP recommended, like using his name during model lessons and having him read the learning objectives. Soon, he was raising his hand in class.

“I felt like I knew what I needed to do because we had so much training and support,” Wilber said.

Perry Township has an unusual set of challenges. Nearly three-quarters of students are poor enough to get subsidized meals. About 25 percent of students are English language learners, and many of them are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma.

There is not much outside research on whether TAP improves student test scores. A 2012 study of the results in Chicago found that the program did not raise test scores, but it increased teacher retention. TAP’s developer has disputed the validity of the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

But in Perry Township, educators say the approach is helping improve student results.

“If you want to make a difference with kids who are in poverty as well as have a lot of cultural differences, this format and this foundation is the best thing that you can utilize,” Superintendent Patrick Mapes said.

Joe Horvath, a master teacher at Southport High School, said his role is the same as coaches in other districts. Instead of having his own classroom, he is in charge of training 28 other teachers. One day a week, he meets with those teachers in groups. The rest of the week, he observes teachers in their classes, gives feedback, and models lessons.

“We are all on the same level,” Horvath said. “It’s not like I am their boss in any way shape or form. This is just something that allows us to continue to give a peer-to-peer feedback thing that I think is kind of missing sometimes.”