Future of Schools

In an about-face, Pence joins Ritz in calling for relief from testing sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence.

Just months ago, Gov. Mike Pence’s fierce opposition to efforts by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to get Indiana to at least consider a “pause” to sanctions for schools, teachers and students for low test scores made the topic political kryptonite.

The Indiana State Board of Education refused to even discuss it when Ritz raised the idea in February.

But today Pence reversed course in a letter to Ritz today suggesting teachers shouldn’t be punished for an expected big dip in ISTEP scores the state board is set to discuss Wednesday.

Another key Republican — Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, quickly issued a statement supporting Pence, changing his position, too.

After months of saying that challenging new state standards and ISTEP tests shouldn’t derail state accountability, Gov. Mike Pence wrote to Ritz:

“Our schools and teachers are doing the same great work today as they did in years past; we are experiencing the normal consequences of higher standards and a new exam. Given the transition Indiana has undergone this year with our academic standards and assessment, our response should reflect fairness to our students, our teachers and our schools.”

Pence said he is asking Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly to create legislation that would ensure “test results will not negatively impact teacher evaluations or performance bonuses this year.”

That move is very much in line with a move Ritz for more than a year has lobbied hard for: a temporary pause in accountability. She raised that idea to the state board more than once, only to be shot down each time.

Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, said Ritz welcomes the governor’s decision, but it’s too little, too late given the worry it’s already caused teachers and schools.

“Superintendent Ritz supports strong accountability as long as it is fair, open and transparent,” Hart said in a statement. “The superintendent looks forward to working with Indiana’s leadership to take advantage of federal flexibility for both teacher evaluations and the assignment of A-F accountability grades for the 2014-15 school year.”

As recently as this past spring, after issuing an executive order to shorten ISTEP tests that had grown to more than 12 hours for some students, Pence said accountability was of paramount importance, regardless of changes to tests or standards.

“We grade our kids every day,” Pence said at a press conference in early February. “We can test and grade our schools every year.”

In June of 2014, Pence followed a newspaper column from Ritz advocating for an accountability pause with a letter directly to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, saying a move like this would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he said in the letter to Duncan. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

In Long’s statement today he applauded Pence, but he contradicted his own position from February.

“As we make this transition with our new standards and test, it is important to be as fair as possible to our students, teachers and schools,” Long said in a statement. “It appears that accomplishing this goal may require legislative action, and Senate Republicans are prepared to act as needed. I’m confident we can find a way to modify portions of our accountability system for one year without suspending it.”

Just eight months ago, after Pence dramatically called for rush legislation to shorten ISTEP, Long was on the other side of the fence.

He sent a letter to the state board saying accountability should in no way be changed for one year of test scores. The state’s accountability system primarily affects teacher evaluation ratings and school A-to-F grades. The ratings can block teachers from raises and poor grades can lead schools into state takeover.

“At no time did I suggest that pause in accountability was appropriate; in fact, I expressed grave concern at the impact this delay would have on our children,” Long wrote in a letter from Feb. 11. “I, along with Speaker (Brian) Bosma, support Governor Pence taking bold action to ensure accountability remains in place.”

Pence’s letter to Ritz today isn’t clear about what could happen to A-to-F grades or if they’d be included in the proposed legislation.

“It is important to ensure that our A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers during this transition year,” Pence said. “I welcome recommendations from the board as we craft solutions that preserve accountability and transparency for Indiana’s academic system.”

Controversy

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.

departures

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.”