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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.