Future of Schools

Want to be a good principal? Teach, an innovation school leader says.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Mariama Carson is founding principal of Global Prep Academy at School 44.

A lot has changed at School 44 in just two years.

In January 2016, the elementary school for grades K-6 had suffered years of low test scores and failing grades from the state. It appeared on a list of campuses that could soon face takeover from the Indiana Board of Education. And two months later, that fate was forestalled when the Indianapolis Public Schools Board preempted the state and restarted it as an innovation school, with a new principal and new staff.

Now, in its second year as Global Prep Academy at School 44, the west side school of more than 500 students is no longer facing state takeover. Student passing rates on state tests jumped by 7.5 percentage points, and the school’s letter grade rose to an A (largely because innovation schools are graded by the state on a more generous scale during their first three years).

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy.

The school is led by Mariama Carson, a charismatic leader with nearly two decades of experience in urban education. Carson spent seven years as principal of Snacks Crossing, a neighborhood elementary school in Pike Township, before leaving to plan for a Spanish-English immersion charter school with funding from the nonprofit Mind Trust. Ultimately, she ended up working with IPS to restart School 44 as a charter school using the immersion model in the innovation network.

Carson offered an unusual piece of advice for other principals: Keep teaching. Principals are supposed to help teachers improve, so they need to practice those skills themselves, she said.

“I think a lot of principals get comfortable in offices and doing paperwork,” she said. “But you got to know the grind of a classroom, and you have to feel that tension between managing the kids and also teaching the skills.”

Chalkbeat sat down with Carson at School 44 last month to talk about what it’s been like to restart a school. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. (Carson also recently spoke to Chalkbeat about the Relay principal training program.)

What was last year like for you — and I guess I mean for you, but also for your school?

I liken it to when I first became a mother. You can read about what it’s like. You can imagine what the challenges will be, but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. And the first year of anything is hard.

We are very strong relationship-oriented people and really believe that this work is predicated on strong relationships. When you are new to a place, though, it’s hard to build that with everybody at the same time.

Teachers were building relationships with each other and with us as administrators. And kids were building trust with their teachers. And parents were building trust. All those things happening at once were really hard.

Everything was new. No one knew the way. We were creating the way as we did it.

It was the most challenging year I’d ever had professionally. Just seeing how the teachers rose to the challenges and made adjustments and were flexible beyond belief has been amazing.

Every parent we call shows up. So that tells me that the trust we worked hard to build last year is intact.

Do you have advice for other principals?

A principal’s best work is done in a classroom. My administrators, we all taught. So when we saw kids struggling, or we saw teachers struggling to make the content accessible to kids, we taught. I taught reading. I taught math. And I modeled for teachers what that looks like.

That’s the best part of my job. I never want to lose my teaching chops, and I always tell principals, keep your teaching chops because you need to be able to bust them out to work with kids who struggle. And then for kids, when your principal is teaching, it’s like, “Oh! I want to be a part of it.”

One of the things we saw mid-year with our math data for grade five and six, is the rigor was not there. So last year, we took the standards that needed to be taught and we broke them apart into what we call a math seminar. Based on the groups the kids were in, I taught a math seminar three days a week. I did the lesson planning.

Teachers have to see that too. We know how to exit plan, and we know how to use the data from the exit slips in order to inform instruction daily.

Why is it important for you to keep teaching?

The most important job I think of a principal is to coach teachers. If you’re an instructional leader, and you can’t coach instruction, and you don’t know how to do it — I don’t know that makes you an effective coach.

Any coach that’s not willing to get their hands dirty and get on that floor with the kids, to make the learning accessible, I think that’s limited coaching.

I know it’s not realistic for me to teach five days a week all day, because I’ve got other responsibilities. But I never want to stop doing that. I always look for opportunities to do it. I’m doing right now first grade — I’m teaching first-grade writing workshop.

Partly because I enjoy it, but teachers need to see, ‘I’m in this with you.’

You were a principal for years before this. … How is (being principal at an innovation school) different?

I was there for 7 years. But here’s the difference. When you are a principal in a district, or my experience in a district, I had an amazing superintendent. Mr. Jones, who was my mentor and still is, he lined everything up how it was supposed to be. There wasn’t a whole lot of decision making about how it looks in your building. When you open a new school, every decision is yours. That is the difference. I do attribute a lot of the gains to my Pike (Township) systems. A lot of stuff that we do here came from Pike. A lot of teachers on my leadership team came from Pike. So we had the same understanding about how to move the needle.

I always, always, always want to be in the position of a learner. I had grown and I had evolved. I felt like I was ready to do some things differently. Within a district that was tightly run and very well run, there wasn’t autonomy and flexibility.

I wanted that. I was ready for that. So that’s why I took the plunge.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”