Another middle school move might not be ‘magic bullet’ for Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Crispus Attucks was the first all black high school in Indianapolis.

It has been more than a decade since Indianapolis Public Schools adopted a new strategy to take on shrinking enrollment, high dropout rates and low test scores: combining middle schools with high schools.

Between 2001 and 2007, more than seven combined junior/senior high schools were created as district officials hoped that streamlining the transition to high school would reduce the dropout rate.

The dropout rate has come down but middle schools have suffered. Middle schoolers at combined schools have consistently dismal scores on the state ISTEP test and the district loses hundreds of middle school kids each year.

Now, acknowledging that the combined schools were a bust, the district is reversing course.

A new board and superintendent have announced plans to break up combined junior/senior high schools in favor of freestanding middle schools or elementary schools that educate students up to 8th grade.

The changes to grade configurations are part of a popular school turnaround strategy that districts have tried across the country as trends have swung back and forth between different theories about which combination of grades works best in a school. Some push for K-8 schools, others want 6th grade in elementary schools or 8th grade in high school.

But despite years of research into the strategy, there is still little consensus among experts on whether restructuring grades is an effective approach to improving student test scores or school climate.

Reconfiguring schools is very costly and tailoring classroom instruction to the needs of middle school students typically has a far greater impact on outcomes, said Brian Carolan, associate dean of the graduate school and professor at Montclair State University.

“If you’re looking for a magic bullet, no — this isn’t it,” he said.

There is some research to support the idea that K-8 schools better serve middle schoolers, and reconfiguring school grades may be the right choice for some districts, Carolan said. It simply varies depending on the district and the specific needs of its students.

(Read: For IPS, middle school test score struggles are a puzzle to solve.)

In IPS, this could be a good moment to consider reconfiguration because the district may also need to close schools due to shrinking enrollment. The district has about 22 percent fewer children than it did 10 years ago. And many people are dissatisfied with the district’s combined middle and high schools, which have particularly low test scores and spark concern over the interaction between students of widely varying ages.

One parent who is eager to see the district remove middle schoolers from high school is Renee Shaw, whose daughter is a 10th grader at Crispus Attucks High School. When her daughter enrolled last fall, Shaw was horrified to see vulnerable pre-teens interacting with high schoolers.

“I just think that they need to be separate,” said Shaw, who would like to see the district move to dedicated middle schools. “That’s a really different time in your life. Your hormones are changing. Your body is going through a lot of changes.”

Although district leaders aim to cut middle school programs from high schools, they haven’t yet settled on a plan for where most of those students will be educated. Many middle schoolers are already in K-8 buildings or Harshman Middle School — programs that will not change. But about 2,033 middle schoolers are in schools that serve students in grades 6-12 or 7-12, and the district will need to create new middle or K-8 schools to fill that gap, said Wanda Legrand, IPS deputy superintendent.

No matter what type of schools the district creates, however, leaders say reconfiguring schools will go hand-in-hand with a renewed focus on offering programs targeted to middle schools students. That includes exploratory courses, guidance to help students transition to high school and interdisciplinary team teaching.

Over the last two weeks, the district has held several community meetings designed to gather input from families about the kind of grade configuration they would like to see. Parents and community members have been fairly split, said Legrand. Some strongly support traditional middle schools and others favor K-8 schools.

When Emily Jarzen and her husband were choosing a school for their daughter, they looked at School 57, a thriving neighborhood school near their home. But it only goes up to 6th grade, and they wanted to be sure she could stay all the way through middle school.

“We just both remember transitioning to 6th grade being very hard,” said Jarzen, whose daughter is in second grade at Rousseau McClellan, a K-8 Montessori magnet program. “We just thought that if she could be in a place that she was comfortable during those years, we would really like that for her.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”