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.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.