Fresh Start

Incoming principal at troubled school invokes neighborhood roots, promises ‘new day’

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Bakari Posey walked the streets around School 43.

Walking the streets around School 43, Bakari Posey passes the corner where his father used to work as a counselor. He points toward Tarkington Park, where he played basketball as a child.

“I grew up in this community,” said Posey, who is the latest principal to take the helm of the troubled school.

School 43 has been plagued by unstable leadership, out of control students and low test scores. The school’s history has made parents wary of yet another principal showing up, promising improvements.

But Posey’s personal connection to the neighborhood is part of his pitch to frustrated parents. It’s a reason to believe that despite all the troubles at the school, he is here to stay.

“I’m putting my all into this because my reputation is on the line,” said Posey, who left an assistant principal position at Tindley Accelerated Schools charter network to join Indianapolis Public Schools.

Both of Posey’s parents are Indianapolis educators, and although he attended Catholic school, he had cousins and childhood playmates who went to School 43.

Brenda Vance Paschal introduced principal Bakari Posey to families in the neighborhood.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brenda Vance Paschal introduced principal Bakari Posey to families in the neighborhood.

Last Saturday, on a day when the temperature approached 95 degrees and the glaring sunshine baked heat into the pavement, Posey walked the blocks around the school with Brenda Vance Paschal, a longtime resident and member of neighborhood association. The pair passed out flyers for the school’s start-of-the-year bash Saturday 12 to 4pm — and introduced Posey to the community.

“I think he will bring new life into the community,” Paschal said. “He’s from the area. He’s gonna stay.”

Most of the houses were quiet, but several businesses let Posey post flyers. A barbershop down the street offered his staff a deal on haircuts. A mother whose child is too young for school agreed to hang an invite to the school’s carnival in her apartment building.

Finally, after an hour of visiting businesses and putting flyers in mailboxes, a mother stepped out onto her stoop to meet the new principal.

Syreta Thomas lives just down the street from the school and her two children were enrolled in there until last year when she became so frustrated with the administration that she pulled them out and put them in a charter school.

Thomas said her son has learning disabilities and she felt he wasn’t getting the extra help he needed. But one of her biggest problems with the school was the culture — teachers would tell her son that he’s a “bad kid” and principals came and went, Thomas said.

She had a simple question for Posey: “Are you sticking around?”

Bakari Posey discussed the future of School 43 with Syreta Thomas, who pulled her children out of the school last year.
PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Bakari Posey discussed the future of School 43 with Syreta Thomas, who pulled her children out of the school last year.

Thomas is not the only parent who has left School 43 as it has struggled in recent years.

Part of Posey’s challenge as a principal will be not only winning the trust of parents who are still at the school but also winning back parents like Thomas.

“It’s a new day,” he told Thomas. “I’m working on a mindset shift for my staff.”

Standing on her stoop, Posey listened to her concerns with the school and promised that he’s here to stay, and that the school will be different.

Posey sees the frustration that parents have with the school. Discipline problems have knocked the school off track, and some kids have lost years of learning time.

“It sucks,” Posey said. “That makes me angry and sad at the same time.”

But he is also convinced that the school can turnaround.

As principal, he is going to be rolling out a new school culture strategy called Tribes Learning Community, that is used and liked by other IPS schools. It’s a model that emphasizes respect among teachers and students, one of biggest goals Posey has for the school. Respect needs to start with teachers, so they can model behavior for kids, he said.

If teachers are angry or yell at students, even the kids that are not causing trouble will lose respect for them, he said.

As an assistant principal at Tindley, Posey was charged with enforcing the charter school’s strict discipline policies. But Posey said his own philosophy is more moderate. Elementary school teachers should give students quick redirections if they are getting off task or distracting the class, he said.

For more severe issues, the school has six staffers who can help with discipline issues, including a social worker, a school counselor and four staffers dedicated to helping students with behavior problems, Posey said. Those staffers can help in class if a teacher is struggling, so instead of sending a misbehaving student to the office, the teacher can take the time to go into the hall with the child and discuss the problem.

“Now that kid doesn’t feel admonished, that kid doesn’t feel embarrassed,” Posey said. “They still feel connected to the teacher.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.