Latasha Marshall waits for a cab. She sits in the lobby of a Hilton Garden Inn, which serves as her living room this week. The Environmental Protection Agency put her up for the week so the agency can deep clean her home; it tested for high levels of lead.
“The other night when we first got here, I went to sleep and I woke up and I was at ease,” Marshall says. “I haven’t been sleeping like that at home.”
Once it’s clean, she can return with her daughters, ages 11, 16 and 17, but not to stay. Her housing complex sits on a superfund site, where the soil contains lead levels over 100 times higher than what the EPA says is safe. This is especially hard for Marshall, because this home was the first she could afford in several years. She moved here after living with relatives in Chicago, Illinois.
“It’s hurtful,” she says. “I wake up sometimes and am just like ‘man, what’s the next step, what are we going to do?’”
The cab arrives at the hotel to get Marshall, who doesn’t have a car. Her youngest daughter used to walk to Carrie Gosch Elementary School, which was right next to her apartment. The school the taxi takes her to is the new Carrie Gosh. It was an empty, former middle school a few months ago.
The old Carrie Gosch Elementary School building sits right next to the West Calumet housing complex, so it’s also on the Superfund site.
The Decision To Move Hundreds Of Students
One section of soil at the old building tested at dangerous lead levels. So superintendent Paige McNulty decided to move the hundreds of students to a former middle school located across town.
McNulty says she made this decision quickly, just nine days before school started, when she found out about the contamination.
“We made the decision on a Saturday and school started the following Monday,” McNulty says. “So we literally had about five days to move the school.”
And McNulty faced a bigger problem:
“It was a middle school, and the school we were moving was a pre-K through sixth grade so I had little, little-bittys moving to a middle school arena,” McNulty says.
In less than a week, contractors worked 18-hour days to lower water fountains and toilets, put the IT infrastructure back in the school and get the kitchen up to code. The district received a $3 million loan from the state this month to pay for these costs plus future construction to make the building an elementary school.
McNulty is also trying to make the students feel safe at school. For example, Marshall’s sixth grade daughter, Ashley, had no idea what lead was until she heard it was under her home.
“I’m kind of like ‘what is that?’,” Ashley says. “Then they mentioned it was poison and of the ground and it’s been in there for over 40 years and they didn’t tell us.”
To help kids like Ashley, McNulty says they’re bringing the discussion into the classrooms.
“So the teachers got together and wrote lesson plans on water, air, lead, soil so that the kids feel like they’re getting some sort of education in their lives so it’s not a scary unknown thing,” McNulty says.
With Lead Contamination Comes A Logistical Nightmare
Now that students are settling in, and the district received the loan to address construction costs – McNulty is struggling with other logistical problems that come with moving the school to a new building.
“One of our biggest challenges is we were not anticipating busing all those students because those students had been walkers,” McNulty says. “Now we had to bus 450 kids to a school that we had not anticipated. We did not have enough bus drivers or buses, and we still don’t. We’re having to double and triple up routes.”
She’s also concerned about how fast her enrollment is dropping. So far this year, 200 students switched schools because of the lead, whether it was to attend another East Chicago school or because their family left the town because of the lead. This is harmful to the district as a whole, because the way school funding works in Indiana, the money follows the student. When students leave, the district loses money, and McNulty is watching her state funding dwindle.
“We get $7,200 person student so we’ve already lost about $1.5 million,” McNulty says.
To try and combat this, the district is offering to bus any kid who leaves East Chicago to attend school in neighboring towns back to their East Chicago school.
But leaving East Chicago and the school district – is exactly what Marshall is thinking about doing. She moved to East Chicago from inner city Chicago, Ill.
“I wanted to leave Chicago,” Marshall says. “I didn’t want to be there with all the violence and everything going on– kids are not safe. And that was my big issue so I wanted to bring them to a better environment, and apparently not.”
So now, Marshall is hoping her voucher from the The U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency to move covers the cost of moving back to Chicago, but to the suburbs this time.
After Tuesday’s ISTEP+ panel meeting produced few concrete ideas for re-writing the new test, many committee members left feeling frustrated at the panel’s progress.
This is the fifth of seven opportunities the panel has to draft the plan for a new state assessment.
The 2016 General Assembly passed a law that gets ride of the ISTEP+ in its current format, after its 2017 administration. It also created a panel of educators, lawmakers and state agency employees to draft a more desirable test. The legislation, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, gave the panel a Dec. 1 deadline to make its recommendation to the legislature.
As that deadline approaches, members are reflecting on the progress made so far, and many are disappointed. After Tuesday’s meeting, morale on the panel dipped.
State superintendent Glenda Ritz, a member of the panel, sent out a statement earlier this week addressing that.
“I am frustrated by the lack of progress being made by the ISTEP Replacement Panel,” Ritz’s statement said. “Families and educators have made it clear that they want to get rid of the punitive, pass/fail ISTEP test.”
Her statement continued to say she will provide a plan for a new test for the panel to consider.
The Disappointment Of Educators
But the biggest disappointment in the group’s work has been expressed by its members who are educators. They constitute more than 50 percent of the panel. The 2016 General Assembly planned this composition to give them their long requested voice in the debate over standardized testing.
Many legislators applauded the panel as the opportunity for teachers, parents and school administrators to take seats at the table and decide the future of ISTEP+.
“We’re at the table but that’s about it,” says Callie Marksbary, a panel member and third grade teacher in the Lafayette School Corporation.
Marksbary says she was very excited when appointed to the panel because she felt the group of educators, alongside policy makers, would finally create a testing system teachers would like. Continue Reading
After one of the last meetings of the ISTEP+ panel, it seems unlikely the group of educators and policy makers will draft a plan for a new state assessment.
When the 2016 General Assembly created the panel through legislation, it charged the group with creating a recommendation for a new test by Dec. 1. The vision was to have educators and other stakeholders craft a plan with elected officials that would then be written into law.
Through the panel, the legislature appointed teachers into the conversation about the future of testing, something many educators have desired for a long time.
Tuesday’s meeting was the fifth of the seven meetings before the Dec. 1 deadline. The previous four focused on ‘creating a test.’ Panel members heard from national experts and engaged in general discussions about what they want to see.
Now, as the deadline looms, with only two planning meetings left, some of the panel members are disappointed there won’t be time to have as much influence over the new test as they originally thought.
“Perhaps what that means is we become more general in our recommendation to the state,” says superintendent of Blackford Schools and panel member Scot Croner. “We won’t be able to be as specific as some individuals, including myself, would have liked to have been in the proposal.”
Representative Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, authored the bill that eliminated the current ISTEP and created the panel. He says the lack of forward mobility comes from the fact that most of the panel don’t usually work in creating an assessment from scratch. He made this statement after the Tuesday meeting, where panel members asked questions about tests at different grade levels and how they work.
“There’s a lot of people who, even on this panel, that are assessment illiterate,” Behning says.
When asked if he would take the panel’s final recommendation seriously or build a plan with other legislators?
“Obviously these people are getting educated,” Behning says. “But I think it’s just reflective of the environment we’re in, you hear a lot of noise about assessment but when it comes down to it a lot of these people don’t have a clue about assessments, how they’re used and what it really means.”
So far, the group has not voted on or put forward any concrete set of parameters for the new test.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Department of Education announced to the panel that they independently contacted testing vendors (companies like Pearson, CTB, ACT, etc.) to ask for proposals on a new test.
This is known as a Request for Information (RFI), and it’s a document of questions sent to companies, asking how they would create a test meeting Indiana’s requirements. The DOE created this document in conjunction with the governor’s office, to bring something concrete back to the panel.
State superintendent Glenda Ritz says this move will ensure the panel has a solid recommendation before December, since the panel wasn’t sure what kind of things to ask of the legislature.
“We need more information?” Ritz says. “Fine, that’s what the whole purpose of the RFI is – what’s out there that we actually can do.”
The proposals from testing companies are due Sept. 30 and will be presented to the panel at the October meeting, with company names redacted.
With only two meetings left, the panel has yet to discuss a state assessment for grades three through eight.
This year’s students and teachers are currently using the ISTEP+, but that will not be the case in spring 2018, according to law. The current version of the ISTEP+ was voted out by a bipartisan group of lawmakers last session.
Behning previously said the state might elect to prolong this test and the contract with testing company Pearson.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced Thursday a financial plan to expand school choice in all 50 states. In many ways, it is similar to what governor Mike Pence created in Indiana and funding formulas created by the Indiana legislature.
In a speech Thursday, Donald Trump said he would allocate $20 billion to states to support school choice opportunities. This money, along with state funding, would be used to create a “scholarship” that each student receives, and then the family decides whether to send the child to a traditional public school, a public charter school or a private school.
“Specifically, my plan will use $20 billion of existing federal dollars to establish a block grant for the 11 million school age kids living in poverty,” Trump said in his speech. “We will give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend. Distribution of this grant will favor states that have private school choice and charter laws, encouraging them to participate.”
One part of his plan mirrors Indiana’s school funding formula - that the money follows the student.
Indiana’s current funding formula does exactly that. A student receives the same amount of state funding whether he or she attends a traditional public or charter school. Rather than funding a school directly the state allocates the money per child.
But Trumps plan would extend this idea to include private schools as well – for all students – so state money could follow any student to any type of school. While, in Indiana, state money only follows students to private schools if they qualify for the state voucher program.
“If the states collectively contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice, on top of the $20 billion in federal dollars, that could provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every K-12 student who today lives in poverty,” Trump said.
In a statement released by the Trump campaign, Pence praised the plan:
“The school choice proposals unveiled today by Mr. Trump are a bold set of policies that will increase accountability and lead to better results for our nation’s children.”
StateImpact contributed a story to the project about how changes to Indiana’s funding formula affected schools with high number of English language learners and students living in poverty. We reported how funding played out in Goshen Community Schools, a district with 50 percent English language learners.
Today, Cory Turner of NPR’s Ed team has a follow up on the topic of school funding and what the federal government is doing to equalize it:
Today, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled new rules, explaining to states and districts how they can prove they’re spreading resources fairly between poor and less-poor schools.
Today’s release is a re-write of rules that were first unveiled last spring and that caused quite a stir, creating a political unicorn: a fight in which Republicans and teachers unions found themselves on the same side.
That fight hinged on a simple fact of life in America’s schools: Districts often spend more money in more affluent schools. That’s because teachers in poorer schools that receive federal Title I aid tend to be less experienced and, as a result, less expensive.
A little over a week ago, we published an analysis of Indiana’s voucher program and how it’s evolved over the last five years.
The program has grown since the 2011 General Assembly created it and former governor Mitch Daniels signed it into law. It grew because the qualifications for a charter changed dramatically.
As the criteria by which students can qualify for vouchers expanded, enrollment in the program grew exponentially.
When looking at enrollment in the program, it is also important to understand its capacity - how many private schools have open spots and can welcome students using a voucher to pay tuition.
Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, authored the original voucher program in 2011 and supported its expansions through the years. He said, when they first created the program, they saw capacity for 30,000 students to enroll.
With last years numbers, it seems we are close to that. Enrollment slowed from early, dramatic growth to a few thousand between the 2014-2015 school year. The 2015-2016 school year also makes us think we might be capping out.
But Drew Catt, director for State Research and Policy Analysis at EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group based in Indianapolis, says there is still room to grow.
During the 2013-2014 school year, his group surveyed private schools to see what their capacity for new students was. The Indiana Non-Public Education Association contributed to the survey as well.
“We found, at the time, that there were enough empty seats to grow the program by [21,300],” Catt says.
He’s now recalculated this number to include new data and enrollment, and says there are around 8,500 open seats in private schools that could be used by a voucher. And he says this could even rise to 11,000, what he calls a “cautious estimate,” because of the addition of a few private schools around the state.
In 2013, the legislature adjusted the program so there is no cap on the number of vouchers awarded; meaning any student that qualifies for a scholarship and can enroll somewhere can receive a voucher.
Some Indiana schools struggle to find enough teachers as the new school year begins.
Muncie Community Schools officials say the district lost 53 teachers, about 11 percent of its staff, between May and Aug. 9. The district will not rehire all of the positions, but it did hired back 13, and it is still looking for three guidance counselors.
In May, the district announced they would reduce 37 staff positions, which was a combination of retirements, resignations and layoffs.
At that time, superintendent Steven Baule told StateImpact the district lost around $29 million after property tax caps went into place in 2008 and the new school funding formula passed out of the legislature in 2015. Baule says both of these caused the district’s financial problems.
Last year, the school board voted to end bus transportation by 2018 because of a protected tax law that diverted the district’s funds away from transportation.
But money is not the only challenge.
More teachers are moving districts over the summer, more teachers are resigning within days of the start of school, and there’s a smaller pool of applicants.
Teachers have less incentive to stay in a district. A state law in 2012 tied teacher pay to performance evaluations, meaning that teachers would no longer get a pay increase for staying at a district another year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
In the landscape of Indiana education politics, it’s rare to find a topic people on opposite political and ideological sides agree on. But over the last few years, one such topic has come forward: affordable pre-k.
Most of the people working toward this goal agree the state should offer funding to make that possible. But opinions diverge there, over how much funding and who should qualify.
Some believe every child in the state should attend pre-k on the state’s dime, others think we should focus on low-income families.
And this discussion is in the public spotlight now, with the upcoming election and the 2017 General Assembly determining a new two year budget.
Why make pre-k more affordable?
The reason everyone agrees pre-k should be a priority is because research shows kids who attend a high quality preschool do dramatically better in school later on than kids who do not.
A report published this month by the Brookings Institution studied the Head Start program. It found kids who attended the federally funded pre-k program were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college or complete some sort of post-secondary program.
In response to the number of these studies endorsing the importance of pre-k, 42 states and the District of Columbia established state funded programs to get more kids into pre-k classrooms.
For many years, Indiana was one of eight states without a state funded preschool program, which changed in 2014.
Pre-K Pilot Program Put Indiana On The Map
The 2014 General Assembly changed Indiana’s status as one of a handful of states without a state funded program. Governor Mike Pence championed the pilot program, called On My Way Pre-k, which gave scholarships to low income families in five counties in Indiana.
The program enrolled 400 students in the first year, which is less than one percent of four-year-olds in the state. More than 1,000 students applied in these five counties alone, demonstrating a demand for the assistance.
The counties included in the pilot program are Allen, Vanderburgh, Lake, Marion and Jackson. They were chosen to be representative of the state. Some are rural, some are urban, they are meant to represent a range and measure On My Way Pre-k’s ability to succeed in different communities across the state. Continue Reading
A panel of school leaders and state education experts met for the first time on Monday to map Indiana’s path to compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The federal government passed ESSA earlier this year, replacing No Child Left Behind.
ESSA requires states submit their plans to meet the new benchmarks. State superintendent Glenda Ritz assembled the 15-person panel to create recommendations for this plan.
It includes state goals for various education factors, including English language instruction, graduation rates, and student achievement on state tests.
Monday’s meeting focused on establishing goals for graduation rates and student achievement.
The group agreed on a 90 percent graduation rate. It used a federal calculation to establish a reasonable goal. In 2016, 87 percent of Indiana students graduated with a diploma.
“I consider this work to be honing in on how to have schools improve,” Ritz said. “So this helps us to really focus each school on where they are and where they need to go.”
The panel will decided its student achievement goal after the scores from the 2016 ISTEP+ are released.
It will meet three more times this year, and Ritz wants to submit the plan by March 2017.