Future of Schools

Carpe Diem Meridian lost its charter. It’s unclear what’s next for the other schools in the Indianapolis network.

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carpe Diem Meridian.

A school that helped lead the blended learning movement in Indianapolis lost its charter today.

The Indiana State Charter Board voted 5-1 not to renew the charter for the Meridian campus of Carpe Diem, a charter school that opened on the near north side in 2012. The school has struggled with academic problems, low enrollment and financial instability.

But what’s next for Carpe Diem is uncertain: The network runs two other Indianapolis schools, and their charters are not up for renewal for several years. Carpe Diem leaders had proposed consolidating all three schools into the Meridian campus to save money. Now, they will work with board staff to come up with another plan that could relocate or close the remaining schools.

Carpe Diem Meridian opened amid some fanfare in 2012. The campus was one of several new Indianapolis schools that were beginning to seriously rely on blended learning, where students spend significant portions of their class time working on computers. Education leaders hoped the model would allow the school to tailor instruction to each student’s needs and cut down costs by increasing the number of students each teacher could educate to as many as 60.

The network was founded by Rick Ogston in Yuma, Arizona, where its blended model showed strong results. But when it opened campuses in Indiana, Ohio and Texas, it grew too fast too soon, leaders say.

“We should never have scaled when we did,” Ogston said. Expanding the network too quickly “led to underenrollment in all three of the schools.”

The Meridian campus has capacity for 300 students, but it currently enrolls about 120 students. The network also shifted the students from its Shadeland school to the Meridian campus this year due to low enrollment. (The schools remain nominally separate, although they share a campus and principal.) The three campuses educate about 320 students in total.

With low enrollment has come financial problems, and the schools are struggling to pay for buildings and operation costs.

“The big issue here is the financials,” said board member Gretchen Gutman. “You’ve got 22 graduates, and right now you’ve got 16 recruits, so you’re not even treading water at this particular point in time.”

But while financial concerns are among the most urgent problems facing the Indianapolis Carpe Diem schools, they have also struggled academically. The Meridian campus currently has a C on the state accountability system, after two years of D grades. The other two schools have not yet gotten grades from the state.

The Carpe Diem board chair Jason Bearce said the schools have a plan for turnaround. Last year, they fired the company that had managed the schools and brought back Ogston, who had helped found the schools.

“I think that the Indianapolis area is better off with a Carpe Diem than without it,” Bearce said. “There was a period of time there when I started to question whether that was the case. … (But) I feel like we are on a positive trajectory.”

The state board members were strongly supportive of the steps the school leaders have taken to improve the Indianapolis campuses. But it was not enough for them to reauthorize the Meridian campus, and it is unclear what will come next for the other schools.

“It’s heartbreaking that we have to make such as hard decision,” said board member Virginia Calvin. “It is our job to hold you accountable.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.