Future of Schools

Phalen grows network to 10 campuses by taking over charter schools across Indiana and Detroit

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the new Phalen Leadership Academy middle school.

Indianapolis charter school leader Earl Phalen has found his niche: Taking over struggling schools in Indianapolis and beyond.

Just four years after Phalen Leadership Academies started with a single Indianapolis charter school, the network has grown to 10 campuses across Indiana and Detroit, primarily struggling schools that it has taken over from other operators. That means they’re tasked with managing more students than ever — many of them at schools that have struggled for a long time.

The network includes an eclectic mix of school types. In addition to its first charter school, PLA took over charter schools in Gary, Fort Wayne and Detroit. PLA is also central to the Indianapolis Public Schools plan to partner with charter operators. Its two eastside elementary schools — Schools 103 and 93 — were among the first schools restarted as innovation schools. Those schools are managed by Phalen, but still considered part of the district when it comes to state accountability.

PLA was even part of a proposal to take over management of the entire Gary school district, though their team did not win the contract.

Phalen also opened its second start-from-scratch charter school this year, a middle school for students from Schools 103 and 93. Unlike those elementary schools, the middle school is not an innovation partnership.

Chalkbeat stopped by the new PLA middle school to chat with the network’s founder about his organization’s focus and plans for the future. Below are some highlights from our conversation, condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

Chalkbeat: What is your long-term vision for PLA?

Earl Phalen: When we started, we were approved for 10 charter schools here in Indiana. And when we launched our first charter, we came to realize pretty quickly that we’re not charter operators, we are educators. We are agnostic to the governance form but rather focused on, where is there need?

When the innovation school legislation went through, and we could run a district school, when that opportunity came, even though they were public schools, we said, well, the children are there, there’s real high need and we believe that we can make a difference.

Why are you going into the niche of, a charter school had an operator leave and you fill that gap?

A few things. I am not convinced that the solution for our children is more buildings. And the number of children has not increased but the number of buildings is significantly increasing. In Indianapolis, what does that mean? There’s becoming a saturation. So as opposed to being better for children, we are actually doing this game of, “Hey, come here. Hey, come here. Hey, come here.”

That doesn’t solve the fact that many children, and in some city’s most children, are still in schools that we are not proud of — we would not ever send our children to.

(Before launching a charter network, Phalen founded Summer Advantage, a free program to help kids catch up or jump ahead during the break.)

It would almost be like a pop-up school. You would go in with an entirely new staff, and you’d meet children. All of sudden you had to get the culture right right away, because it’s only a six-week summer program. You’d have to get the culture right with a whole new staff, and you’d have to have an educational model, and push for fidelity towards that model.

Because we had done that, and we’d done that for over 100,000 children around the country, we kind of said, the only downside of turnaround is, can you get the culture right? Which we felt like we could do. And then the second thing of turnaround is, are you willing to start with only 5 percent of your kids passing the test? You numbers don’t look as pretty. And we said yes.

Knowing we can change culture, knowing that there’s an oversaturation in many communities — there are too many schools and not enough good schools — and knowing that we have a model that can turn around failing schools into successful schools, we felt like it was the perfect place for us to go.

Do you have any fears about growing too quickly?

I think you’d be foolish not to assess risks and to assess organizational capacity, or lack thereof, in doing this well. We spend a lot of time really trying to think through, what do we need to do this with the level of excellence that our children deserve?

I also have a fear, when I look around and see where our children would’ve been but for my team, our partners’ efforts.

You can look at both fears. We kind of say, we are called to serve, our children deserve the best that they can have. If we believe that with a lot of hard work, a couple prayers and a lot of the right partners, that we can do something special for children, we are going to do it.

It’s not fair what we are doing to children right now. And somebody’s got to get a sense of urgency around that.

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: