Who Is In Charge

Departing state board member proud of ‘difficult conversations’ that led to change for Indiana kids

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Sarah O’Brien, a teacher from Avon, announced she’d be stepping down from the Indiana State Board of Education earlier this month to better address her daughter’s medical care. Her last meeting will be in August. O’Brien was originally appointed to the board by former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2009 and was made vice chairwoman of the board in 2015.

The decision to resign from the board is probably the most difficult decision I’ve made personally and professionally.

I don’t feel like our work is done. I still feel like there is still some really obviously important conversations ahead of us, and I think we have to be very vigilant about setting the path for where we want to be.

There really has been quite a shift from when I started to where we are now.

It was right after my daughter was born, actually. It would’ve been April of 2009. I actually started on the board before I even returned from my maternity leave — it was an odd transition, but an important one.

In seven-and-a-half years, there’s been such a scope of topics and really important decisions we’ve had to discuss and make.

Personally, the testing conversation has obviously been hugely impactful, and I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve forced some difficult conversations in the way that we use assessment, and more specifically, looking at (differences in paper-pencil vs. online scores) was a huge topic last year. I’m really proud … that we’re able to have that corrected so that it was the most accurate picture it could be for our students.

Read: Test format questions hold up state board vote on ISTEP passing scores

The other area I take the most pride is looking at the conversations we’ve had (about) turnaround schools and the schools that have been underperforming. I feel like throughout the duration of the time I’ve been there, at least we’ve been able to … force some real change in those areas so every student has the ability to attend a quality school.

Read: Ferebee pitches an IPS ‘transformation’ plan for troubled schools

I hope that it’s evident that every decision was made with kids in mind. It’s not always an easy decision, and sometimes we were making decisions that I know weren’t popular by any means, but I genuinely feel like every conversation we have had has been with kids at the forefront. I hope that continues to be the path.

Just because it’s uncomfortable for adults doesn’t mean it’s not the path that we need to take.

I’m leaving the board, but I’m not leaving the classroom. The decisions that are made still certainly impact my daily existence and my children’s as well.

I think some of the best advice and opinions and knowledge I have received (as a board member) are from people in the field who take the time to send their thoughts along. I think that’s such an important part of the process, and I think that’s something I absolutely hope continues.

One of the things I’ve appreciated most at a more personal level, is that I’ve been able to be more of a resource for my colleagues or people around me who don’t understand the political implications of the decisions that were made. I hope I can continue to clarify some of those things as they occur.

It’ll be difficult to be on the sidelines and watching from afar, but I definitely plan to stay involved.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: