Early Childhood

Pence pushes more funding for school choice but not preschool

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Mike Pence greets Republican lawmakers after his State of the State address Tuesday night.

Gov. Mike Pence today called again on the legislature to make education its main focus this year during his State of the State address through big changes in school funding, choice and more.

“Let’s agree here and now, Republicans and Democrats alike, that this will be an education session dedicated to improving all our schools for all our kids,” Pence told a joint session of the legislature.

But not as high on his list this year is state funded preschool for poor children, his signature legislative accomplishment from 2014.

He called for two years of full funding for the $10 million preschool pilot program he pushed hard to get through the legislature this past year. That program was hailed by Republican and Democratic advocates for state support of preschool as a good start, but some of them don’t want to wait two years to see it expand.

“Building on the historic first step we took last session, we will invest $10 million a year to fund scholarships for our new pre-K pilot,” Pence said “Because every Hoosier child deserves to start school ready to learn.”

When it came to education, the bulk of Pence’s remarks were familiar: themes he has stuck to since announcing his legislative agenda last month.

Pence’s budget priorities, presented to a legislative committee last week, made waves because they proposed lifting caps on how much state aid poor and middle-income families can use on private school tuition under the state voucher program. He echoed his earlier call for to more financial support for vouchers and charter schools — school choice programs that together could direct more than $50 million to private schools out of more than $200 million Pence requested in new spending on education.

“Let’s open more doors of opportunity to more Hoosier families by lifting the cap on the dollar amount that choice schools receive for students and raise the cap on the choice scholarship tax credit program,” Pence said. “And because public charter schools receive significantly less total funding per pupil than traditional schools, let’s adjust funding for charter students to allow more communities to offer more choices for families.”

Pence also wants to expand “performance funding,” a program that gives extra money to teachers at schools that perform well on state tests, a move critics say would benefit wealthy areas with built-in advantages when it comes to standardized tests.

Also on his priority list is a program he calls “freedom to teach,” which would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to make grants that allow schools to be released from some state regulations. But unions have called that measure an attack on collective bargaining rights, which also could be circumvented.

Pence is especially partial to career and technical education, and he’s proposed a $40 million increase in funding for those programs. By 2020, he said he wants to see five times more students graduating high school with industry certifications that will qualify them for jobs.

The preschool pilot, which just got underway this month, is tiny so far, with less than 500 students expected to enroll this year, including only about 100 students in Marion County. It is expected to grow to at least 1,600 next year.

After an extended debate last year, reluctant Republican lawmakers, who feared escalating costs if state aid to preschool became routine, agreed to a pilot on the condition that results from the program first be studied before expansion is contemplated.

But critics say there is ample evidence that high quality preschool has a variety of positive effects on the future academic studies, work and lifestyles of poor children.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, the Democratic leader in the Indiana Senate, applauded Pence for mentioning the preschool program but said he was disappointed there was no push to offer more aid for poor children.

“We should not be just talking about maintaining funding for preschool in Indiana,” he said. “What people want to really see is an expansion of early childhood education for the state of Indiana. I don’t think we heard that tonight.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”