Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

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Claire McInerny

Claire McInerny is a reporter/producer for WFIU/WTIU news. She comes to WFIU/WTIU from KCUR in Kansas City. She graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Kansas where she discovered her passion for public media and the stories it tells. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

This Week At The Statehouse: Pre-K Funding & State Superintendent

Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) argues against the House Republicans proposed 2017-19 budget on Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Indiana Statehouse (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) argues against the House Republicans proposed 2017-19 budget on Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Indiana Statehouse. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

This week marked the last committee meetings of the first half of the session, as both chambers scramble to wrap up any bills they want to move forward into the second half of the session. Monday and Tuesday are the last days both chambers can approve a bill if they want it to move forward. The legislature will then take the rest of the week off and return the following Monday.

Appointed State Superintendent Gets Surprising Vote

A bill that would change the state superintendent position from an elected official to one appointed by the governor was surprisingly shot down in the Senate education committee this week. Republicans have long advocated to make the position appointed, so it was surprising when 17 Republicans voted against the bill.

Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) voted against the bill and says it could result in major policy swings each time a new governor enters office.

“In the long run, that will be more harmful to education, than some kind of stable, checks and balances, you have to fight each other over this to get a result done,” Kenley says.

Later that day, the House passed a similar version of the bill, which will be sent to the same committee that killed the Senate version.

A Senate rule says a bill that is similar in language to a defeated bill may not be heard again in the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R- Ft. Wayne, says the House bill could still come into the Senate if someone dramatically changed the language.

Additional Pre-K Funding Package Reduced By $7 Million

The Senate Appropriations committee this week dramatically scaled back the increase many at the statehouse and beyond are asking for to the state-funded pre-K program. 

The current pre-K pilot program, which served around 3,700 in the first two years in five counties, costs $10 million a year. Many Republicans, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, Democrats and business leaders asked for a doubling of that amount. An amendment authored by Kenley reduced the increase to $3 million.

A similar bill is still alive in the House.

Students With Disabilities Benefit From First 2017 Bill Signed Into Law

A proposal that eases transportation for students with disabilities is one of a few bills that has instantly garnered bipartisan buy-in and momentum.

House Enrolled Act 1507 lets groups that serve developmentally disabled students rent public school buses for private events or trips that are not state-sponsored. For example, a team of Special Olympic athletes could now use the bus from their local district to travel for a competition. This was not allowed before, as law required only “state-supported agencies” to use a public school bus.

“This bill moved to my desk quickly with bipartisan support, because it is a common-sense, quick fix to an existing law that gives Indiana schools the flexibility they need to better serve students with disabilities,” Gov. Holcomb said in a statement.

The law, which went into effect Thursday after Holcomb signed it, was authored by Rep. Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso) and sponsored by Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso).

Dems’ Last Ditch Amendments To House Budget Fail

House Democrats have fought almost all legislative proposals this session that would give charter schools, virtual schools and private schools using vouchers from receiving any new financial or accountability benefits.

Indianapolis Democratic Reps. Greg Porter and Ed DeLaney offered up a slew of education changes Thursday on the House floor as the 2017-2019 budget was debated.

They called for: cutting both the $52.6 million funding for ISTEP and $25 million for the charter school grant program; shutting down the State Charter School Board; and retaining tuition funding for virtual schools at 90 percent per student instead of the proposed 100 percent in the budget bill.

DeLaney urged lawmakers to cease the ISTEP and the next generation ILEARN exam during the past two months.

On Thursday, these amendments failed mostly along party lines. On Monday the House will vote to approve the budget.

‘Prayer In School’ Bill Gains Support

A bill preventing discrimination of students expressing religious beliefs in school passed out of a committee this week and goes to the full House floor for a full vote. 

If made into law, schools would have to provide opportunity for students to express their own religious beliefs during events where other students are speaking. The Department of Education and state attorney would be required to provide a “model policy” on these issues for schools to adopt.

Senate Appropriations Committee Reduces Funding For Pre-K Pilot

Sen. Kenley, R-Noblesville, reduced funding for a pre-k expansion bill, from $10 million a year to $3 million a year.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, reduced funding for a pre-K expansion bill, from $10 million a year to $3 million a year. (photo credit: Bill Shaw / Indiana Public Broadcasting)

A Senate committee voted Thursday to reduce the amount of additional money given to state-funded preschool. Democrats and many Republicans, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, advocated for a $10 million increase, but an amendment written by Senate Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, reduces the increase for On My Way Pre-K to $3 million.

Kenley’s amendment, passed by the appropriations committee 12-1, dramatically reduces the money to expand state-funded pre-K education, and it allocates money to a preschool program that would be taught at home. Kenley says the program is “not homeschooling.”

Holcomb asked the legislature for a $10 million a year increase to On My Way Pre-K before the session started, but Kenley says he doesn’t want to expand the program significantly until a longitudinal study measures success.

Kenley also has philosophical differences with state-funded pre-K.

“All it does is alleviate the responsibility of the parent to prepare the child for education,” Kenley says.

The amendment also allocates $1 million to provide assistance for people who are homeschooling a preschool-aged child.

In a statement released after the appropriations committee reduced the governor’s plan, Holcomb’s spokesperson, Stephanie Wilson, underlined his commitment to state-funded pre-K expansion.

“It’s a key component of the governor’s legislative agenda and one that will contribute directly to the state’s efforts to build a 21st century skilled and ready workforce by ensuring Hoosier students have a strong beginning to their education,” Wilson said.

When the state launched On My Pre-K in 2015, Indiana became one of the last states to have a state-funded preschool program. The pre-K pilot program gives scholarships to low-income families to attend an already established, high quality preschool.

But Indiana still offers far fewer education services for low-income preschools than most states in the country: The pilot is small, serving about 3,700 students in the three years since its launch.

But Kenley says the state does supports its preschoolers.

“There’s already $400 million a year that’s being spent on programs for kids under the age of 5, including the fact that 37 school corporations have a full pre-K program,” Kenley says.

But many of these pre-K programs aren’t free. Almost all school districts charge tuition until a child reaches K-12.

This bill, with the amendment, must pass the full Senate by Tuesday, the deadline for the first half of the session. If the full Senate passes it, it heads to the House for consideration.

Senate Ed Committee Holds Last Meeting At Session Midway Point

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The Senate education committee wrapped up the the session’s first half Wednesday.

SB 250, which dealt with graduation cohorts, was not heard and therefore does not go forward this session. Both SB 407, which is a general education bill, and SB 498, dealing with teacher compensation, will go forward to the full House.

Next Tuesday marks the end of the first half of the session. All Senate and House bills must pass through their initial chambers to continue in the second half.

The Senate education committee will reconvene March 8, when it will begin hearing bills passed out of the House.

Senate Kills Bill To Appoint State Superintendent

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, left, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, are in support of making the state superintendent an appointed position. But today, the Senate killed a bill that would make that happy.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long (R-Fort Wayne), left, and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), are in support of making the state superintendent an appointed position. But today, the Senate killed a bill that would make that happen. (photo credit: Dan Goldblatt / Indiana Public Media)

Republican and Democratic senators voted down a bill Monday that would have changed the Superintendent of Public Instruction from an elected position to an appointed one.

This session, both the House and Senate sponsored bills to make the state’s highest education official an appointed position, and Monday, the Senate voted down its version of the bill, with 17 Republicans joining all of the Democrats in voting against it. The final vote was 23-26.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long spoke in favor of the bill, saying the head of the Department of Education should be chosen by the governor, just like every other department head in the state.

“Only 13 states, including Indiana, elect their superintendent, and only nine, including Indiana, make it a partisan election,” Long says.

Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) voted against the bill and says it could result in major policy swings each time a new governor enters office.

“In the long run, that will be more harmful to education, than some kind of stable, checks and balances, you have to fight each other over this to get a result done,” Kenley says.

Making the state superintendent an appointed position rather than an elected official has been a long term goal for Republicans, including Gov. Eric Holcomb and many of his predecessors.

This issue was a discussion point in previous sessions, and prompted a dramatic discussion because many Democrats said it was a way for Republicans to get rid of former state superintendent Glenda Ritz, who often clashed with Republicans. But supporters of the bill this year say the desire to make the position appointed was bigger than one person.

Later in the day Monday, the similar House Bill 1005 passed out of the House
to the Senate by a vote of 68-29.

House Speaker and author Brian Bosma refused to say whether his
legislation was doomed by the Senate vote. Senate rules dictate, if a
bill receives as many no votes as SB 179 did, nothing similar may be
heard in either chamber.

“Somehow, someway, some of those items come back together,” he said
about legislation in years past that has faced a similar defeat in one
chamber.

Bosma said there are ways to bypass the Senate to get the legislation
onto the governor’s desk, such as adding the language into the House
budget.

House Budget Proposal Eliminates Teacher Bonus Program

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The Indiana Statehouse. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The Indiana House of Representatives revealed its first draft of the state budget for the next two years Wednesday, which eliminates the teacher bonus program and re-invests that money into general K-12 spending.

The teachers performance grants are based mainly on how students perform on state tests. In 2016, the formula that calculates these bonuses created a huge disparity, with some teachers getting thousands of dollars and some teachers receiving nothing. The House budget gets rid of the program and re-invests the $40 million into general K-12 spending.

Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville), who also heads the Senate budget committee, says he disagrees with eliminating the state funded teacher bonus program.

“That’s a concept that I think is pretty important, and I hope we can develop it properly. This last year, two years’ experience, was bad but it was an unforeseen occurrence,” Kenley says.

The disparity in the bonuses for the highest rated teachers grew after another statewide dip in ISTEP+ scores. The formula allocates less money to teachers in lower scoring districts.

To keep the program and fix the disparity, lawmakers like Kenley would have to re-write the law.

The House’s budget proposal would also increase overall school funding by almost 3 percent. The increases also apply to special education and English learner funding. It would also double funding to the pre-K pilot program.

The budget bill is now open to amendments.

Bonuses Inconsistent With Teacher Performance Statewide

Julie Arnold is a fifth grade teacher in Carmel Clay Schools, and received one of the highest bonuses issues by the state this year, around $2,500. Other teachers in the state, with the same, high ranking as Arnold, received different bonus amounts, including $0. The formula that calculates the bonuses are based mainly on standardized test scores. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Julie Arnold is a fifth grade teacher in Carmel Clay Schools, and received one of the highest bonuses issued by the state this year, around $2,500. But many top-rated teachers received lower bonuses or nothing at all. The formula that calculates the bonuses is largely based on standardized test scores. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Heather Peacock is part of a family of educators.

“Both my sister and sister-in-law are teachers,” she says.

The three of them teach in different school districts in the Indianapolis area: Zionsville, Perry Township, and Wayne Township, where Peacock works. Right before the holidays, they all received their state-issued bonuses for being good teachers.

“It was kind of fascinating, we were all together at Christmas, and I thought, OK, the three of us are all highly-effective educators,” Peacock says. “While I didn’t begrudge any one of them for their extra money coming on their check, I found it very interesting we had all been rated highly effective by our school administrators and we were all receiving different amounts of money.

One sister got a $2,200 bonus, the other got $900. Peacock received $47.

How Test Scores Affect The State’s Best Teachers

Each year, the state allocates millions of dollars in bonuses to Indiana’s highest rated teachers. But the don’t all get the same amount of money. This year, some got $2,500 dollars, and others $0. These allocations come from a formula, created by the legislature. It’s mainly based on test scores. So if most of a teacher’s students pass the ISTEP+, the teacher gets a higher bonus. If many students fail, that affects the teacher’s bonus.

This past year, ISTEP+ scores dropped across the state, so the bonuses were even smaller. And the teachers in school districts where families have more money, few students live in poverty, and most of them are native English speakers without special education needs, they received the most money.


Peacock received a $47 bonus, despite being rated highly effective by her principal and facing a lot of challenges in her classroom.

She taught at Wayne Township’s McClelland Elementary for 18 years. A third of her students are English language learners and around half of her class uses special education services.

These special learning plans require check-ins with parents and administrators, which means she spends a lot of time in meetings, doing paperwork, and creating substitute plans for when she’s meeting with a parent. Peacock is usually at McClelland Elementary from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.- and most Sundays.

But because her students have various academic challenges, they didn’t have a high passing rate on the ISTEP+ last year. Which meant Peacock received one of the lowest bonuses (besides those who received nothing) in the state.

Peacock says, when teachers put in so much time and effort, a bonus helps their families afford a vacation or an opportunity to pad their savings.

“It could have really helped,” she says. “But my husband and I didn’t dwell. We have lots of friends where the shoe was on the other foot, so we were pleased for them.”

A great teacher, with a great bonus

At Carmel Clay Schools, 25 miles away, Superintendent Nick Wahl was not pleased when the bonuses came out.

“It was very sad to be quite frank,” he says.

In the current bonus formula, his highly effective teachers got the largest bonuses in the state, around $2,500. But he says the formula has to change.

“We have public school teachers across the state, from urban to suburban to rural, who are doing very good things in the classroom every day, and unfortunately it sent them a message that they’re not as important per se,” Wahl says. “I think that’s very unfortunate.”

Wahl says the state needs to value all of its top rated public school teachers equally – from Heather Peacock in Wayne Township to one of his highest rated teachers, Julie Arnold.

It’s obvious when you walk into her fifth grade gifted class at Forest Dale Elementary in Carmel, Arnold’s kids love learning. They gushed about a science experiment they did earlier in the day, and one of her students, Lily, explained what makes Arnold a good teacher.

“She gives us choices,” Lily says. “Some people learn a different way than others, and will teach them in that way. She’ll let people group together and some work on their own. They each get to work in the way they want to.”

Like Peacock, when she goes home, Arnold plans lessons, does her paperwork and answers parent emails for 4-5 hours. She takes Saturdays off and works in her classroom on Sundays.

“I think of myself as a teacher for the whole child,” Arnold says. “So those things are necessary.”

Arnold says her bonus was helpful.

“That money was spent in the classroom long ago,” she says. “It gives you a bit of breathing room, to look at new tile, or a rug I had not intended to purchase.”

But while she got that breathing room, Arnold thinks the formula should change so other teachers can as well.

“I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t spend countless hours outside the classroom, who didn’t totally invest in what they were doing during the day, and at considerable sacrifice,” Arnold says.

A More Equitable Way To Give Teachers Bonuses?

Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts says using test scores to calculate bonuses doesn’t recognize everything that teachers do.

“Is it about the impact that teacher has on that child from the time they walk into the classroom from the time they are no longer with that teacher?” Butts says. “Of course we would argue teacher performance is about that impact that teacher has on each one of those children.”

Butts, Wahl and other administrators around the state are asking lawmakers to change the formula. Many would rather see it based on student growth. So a teacher could get a bonus if students improve on testing throughout the year, regardless if they pass or not.

Lawmakers are currently discussion how to approach teacher bonuses. The House version of the budget eliminates the program altogether, and suggests re-investing the money into general K-12 funding. This already has pushback in the Senate, where some Senators have expressed wanting to keep the program.

Regardless of what happens at the Statehouse, both teachers say they don’t expect a bonus. And Wayne Township’s Peacock says she gets her validation from her students and their families.

“I’m not here for a bonus. I didn’t’ become a teacher to make piles of money,” Peacock says. “I love what I do.”

Peacock and many of her colleagues donated their $47 bonuses to their district’s education foundation, which gives teachers grants to try new things in the classroom. So far they’ve raised $4,000.

This Week At The Statehouse: Education Budget And U.S. History

Caleb Cureton, 14, and his mom, Shana Cureton-McMurray, testified before the Senate education committee this week, in favor of a bill that would increase funding for after school programs. Cureton says his experience at the Boys and Girls Club in Columbus broke him out of his shell and exposes him to many parts of his community. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/ Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Caleb Cureton, 14, and his mom, Shana Cureton-McMurray, testified before the Senate education committee this week in favor of a bill that would increase funding for after school programs. Cureton says his experience at the Boys and Girls Club in Columbus broke him out of his shell and exposes him to many parts of his community. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/ Indiana Public Broadcasting)

This week at the Statehouse we saw our first major budget asks for education funding and a slew of bills moving through the process.

Here are the highlights.

Superintendent McCormick Makes Budget Request

Superintendent Jennifer McCormick requested a two year budget for the Department of Education, and it asked for a minimal budget increase for the Department of Education in 2017-19. It mirrors Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to flatline all but one fund, tuition support. Read more about her budget request.

Virtual Schools Focus in Charter School Accountability Bill

House Bill 1382 offers numerous tweaks and considerable changes for public charter schools and their authorizers.

“It’s trying to increase some of the rigor for our authorizers of our charter schools,” says author, Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis).

The bill is headed to the House floor, though some battles remain.

Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) attempted numerous amendments to specify who can be on the board of a charter school and where meetings can be held. All amendments were shot down.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be zeroing in on some of specific provisions. Here are a few:

  • The legislation would change the definition of virtual school to a program that has more than 75 percent of its instruction provided online.
  • Schools like Hoosier Virtual Academy would be required to create a “student engagement policy” that would set standards to determine how much time a student spends learning.
  • At a traditional school, Behning said, physical attendance in the classroom is how engagement is recorded.
  • Another portion requires the State Board of Education to first give an authorizer the OK to renew a charter for a failing school. Current law requires an authorizer to seek approval from the State Board after granting such a renewal.

Charter schools have grown from 11 in 2002 to around 90 today. There are eight charter school authorizers.

Democrats Balk At Voucher Provision In Pre-K Bill

Expanding state-funded preschool is one topic most Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb agree on. However, two things remain to be settled in House and Senate legislation: how much of an expansion and at what cost?

This week, some Democrats are saying they will not support HB 1004 because it contains a provision that includes private school vouchers. Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee, wants state-funded On My Way Pre-K program to become a new “pathway” for families to be approved for the Choice Scholarship program.

A string of Democrat amendments Tuesday night failed to strip out the voucher language and the bill passed committee 9-4 with only Republican support. Expect more debate on the House floor.

Read more about this issue from earlier reporting this week.

Out Of The Senate: U.S. History Class

SB 117, a bill about U.S. history courses passed out of the Senate. It is now waiting until bills switch to the House, where that chamber will put it through its own vetting process. The bill lays out required components of every U.S. History course taught at Indiana high schools:

  • All history classes must include lessons on the Holocaust
  • Lessons on the role of state and federal governments, “including the role of separation of powers,” the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.
  • Every student must take the U.S. Civics Test that immigrants take. Schools can decide whether to make the outcome of the test count toward grades, but they must at least take it.

Senate Ed Committee: After School Programs and School Calendars

This week in the Senate’s education committee, two bills were presented for the first time, both warranting a lengthy discussion.

First, SB 88 would require all schools, public and private, to wait until Sept. 1 to begin the school year. Many school districts around the state use a balanced calendar, which means the breaks are spread throughout the year– longer Spring Break, Winter break and Fall break instead of a huge chunk off in the summer.

The author, Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg), says she wrote the bill after speaking with constituents. She says a shorter summer break doesn’t give teenagers enough time to get a summer job or employers to find high school labor. She also says parents have trouble finding childcare for long breaks, throughout the year, instead of one childcare provider in the summer.

Business leaders, such as the CEO of Holiday World and many lobbyists for hotels and restaurants testified in favor of the bill. They say, when summer is shorter, people take fewer trips and their businesses suffer.

But senators on both sides of the aisle pushed against the idea of all school districts starting at the same time. They think that should be a local decision.

For example, Speedway Schools may want to wrap up for the year before the Indy 500, which takes place in their area. And many school districts near a college or university align with those calendars.

This idea has been proposed before and not put into law.

Funding After School Programs

Since it’s a budget session, many bills address money, and this week the Senate had its first hearing on one that would give grants to after school programs. These grants would be given to help programs that serve students in grades 5-8 expand or improve quality.

There is no set amount of money being requested in the bill, but it has bipartisan support in the Senate.

Shana Cureton-McMurray and her 14-year-old son, Caleb Cureton, each testified before the committee about the importance of having high quality after school programs in every community.

When Cureton-McMurray moved to Columbus after leaving a domestic violence situation, she sent Caleb to the Boys & Girls Club every day after school and every day in the summer, because she knew it was a safe place for her son to spend time while she attended nursing school.

Caleb says his experience at that program helped him build his social skills in a less structured environment than school, and Cureton-McMurray says she hopes all tweens have access to this experience.

“If kids have this opportunity, especially in those critical ages, in the fifth through the eighth grades, it has the ability to change their lives and change the type of people they are,” she says.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn), says, if the rest of the General Assembly does agree to this funding, it will likely start off as a small amount.

McCormick’s Education Budget Request Mirrors Holcomb Plan

Jennifer McCormick, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, center, discusses the Indiana Department of Eduction's budget request at the Hose Ways and Means Committee hearing on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (photo credit: Indiana General Assembly)

Jennifer McCormick, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, center, discusses the Indiana Department of Eduction\’s budget request at the Hose Ways and Means Committee hearing on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. (photo credit: Indiana General Assembly)

The Indiana Department of Education presented its two-year budget proposal to lawmakers Thursday.

For the most part, State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s first request in the job mirrored Gov. Eric Holcomb’s conservative K-12 funding plan.

They both are asking lawmakers for a $280 million increase in basic school funding for 2017-18 and 2018-19 budget. That amounts to a one percent increase in the budget’s first year and a two percent increase in the second year.

McCormick did make a pitch for squeezing additional dollars into a few programs if financial “wiggle room” can be found later in the legislative session. More funding is needed in per student tuition support and the AP testing program is nearing a funding shortfall, she said.

McCormick did not ask for a specific amount for those areas during the hour long House Ways and Means Committee hearing.

“If we can get that up at all I know the field would appreciate it,” she said of funding levels beyond Holcomb’s recommendation in those areas.  “But I am very cognizant there is one pot of money.”

Funding for K-12 makes up nearly half of the state’s general fund budget and will likely face considerable scrutiny as lawmakers weigh the cost of continuing the ISTEP assessment for two more years with requests to bolster other education related areas. Continue Reading

How An Indiana High School Gets Refugees, English Learners To College

Hser Muh Htah and Na Da Laing are two Burmese refugees who attend East Allen University, a college prep public high school in Ft. Wayne. The school is located in a neighborhood where many refugee students live, meaning the school is changing its tactics to help English learners get through the program and to college. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Hser Muh Htah and Na Da Laing are two Burmese refugees who attend East Allen University, a college prep public high school in Ft. Wayne. The school is located in a neighborhood where many refugee students live, meaning the school is changing its tactics to help English learners get through the program and to college. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Shannon Eichenauer stands at the front of her classroom, explaining an assignment to her junior English class. Groups of students will debate each other over frequently banned books.

“You’ll be graded on how well did you argue that your book shouldn’t be banned or should be banned,” she tells her class at East Allen University.

Na Da Laing’s group is assigned Animal Farm, and so far, she’s read about half of it.

“I know conflict will arise, because the leader, Napoleon, is going to break the rules of killing someone. I think the animals are going to go against him,” Laing says.

Laing’s ability to analyze a piece of literature is expected in this class – it’s dual credit, meaning students earn both college and high school credit. But for Laing, it’s a huge accomplishment to be here, because a few years ago, she couldn’t speak English. She’s Burmese, and came to the United States eight years ago after living in a refugee camp.

She started school when she arrived in the country, and says it was hard.

“I struggled in elementary school because I was different from other students. I couldn’t speak English at all,” Laing says.

She was put in an English learner program in elementary school, and is now considered proficient in the language. And in Fort Wayne, there are hundreds of kids like Laing.

In the early ’90s, Fort Wayne was a federal refugee resettlement area for refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The Burmese refugee community population in Fort Wayne is in the thousands, making it one of the largest in the country.

One Of The State’s Few All Dual Credit Schools

Burmese refugees are present at all of the schools in Fort Wayne, but the high school Laing attends, East Allen University, is a little different.

EAU is a public high school, anyone can enroll, but it focuses on college prep and getting high school students college credit.

“Students can earn their high school diploma and an associate’s degree in a four-year period,” says Principal Doug Hicks.

Doug Hicks is the principal at East Allen University in Ft. Wayne, a public high school that allows students to receive 60 college credit hours by the time they graduate. Because of where this high school is located, many refugee students  attend the school.

Doug Hicks is the principal at East Allen University in Fort Wayne, a public high school that allows students to receive 60 college credit hours by the time they graduate. Because of where this high school is located, many refugee students attend the school. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Hicks says the program at his high school offers dual-credit classes starting freshman year, and when most students graduate, they earn an associate’s degree or have around 60 college credits to put toward a degree. He says the district started this program five years ago to help with college preparedness. The program is located in one of the poorest parts of the city, where many of the refugee students live.

Burmese refugees account for around 20 percent of the student population, and Hicks says, they are some of his best students.

“They have all of the indicators that they shouldn’t be making it,” Hicks says. “They don’t speak English in their household, the poverty piece, they didn’t live in the country from day one, they have all the strikes against them that we would think, as educators, would keep people from achieving. Yet, they continue to do it.”

The Challenges Of Getting English Learners To College

But their academic success doesn’t come without struggle. First, even if they are proficient in English, there are cultural hurdles in the classroom. Eichenauer, Laing’s English teacher, says plagiarism is one issue.

“Typically, in a lot of other countries that our students are coming from, like Thailand, it’s a compliment to share another’s words and not necessarily cite it,” Eichenauer says.

Eichenauer also says the books she teaches in her English class prompt interesting conversations between refugee students and American-born students. Like when she teaches The Great Gatsby, and explains the characters are drinking alcohol during prohibition, the American students don’t think twice about it.

“Then you have some Burmese students who don’t understand. To them, why would you break the law?” Eichenauer says.

Staff and administration at East Allen University say the dual-credit structure is especially helpful in navigating this obstacle – and others. Many of the Burmese parents have no understanding of the American college system.

But this program was designed with a robust college counseling program, tutors, and teachers with college level teaching experience. These staff members are crucial in helping the refugee students understand how college works.

Principal Hicks says with refugee students, even the simplest parts of a college application can be tricky.

“One thing we’ve run into here is social security numbers and how old they are and that type of thing,” Hicks says.

When she graduates high school next year, Laing will be the first in her family to have career options. Her parents left school before eighth grade to start labor jobs back in Myanmar, which means at her house, there’s a huge emphasis on succeeding in school.

“I kind of feel a little pressure, because I’m going to be the first person to go to college,” Laing says. “I’m scared that I’m going to mess up on my way, since there’s no one to really look up to.”

After graduation, her plan is to attend Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, and work part time to support her parents. As for academics?

“I want to major in education and communication, bachelor’s degree,” Laing says.

She wants to teach high school English.

Lilly Endowment Invests $9 Million In School Counseling Programs

During the 2013–2014 school year, Indiana’s four-year high school graduation rate was 87.9 percent. One year later, during the 2014-15 school year, the graduation rate was down to 87.1 percent. (Chris Moncus/Wikimedia)

Lilly Endowment Inc. gave more than 200 schools grants totaling $9 million, to improve school counseling programs around the state. (Chris Moncus/Wikimedia)

Lilly Endowment Inc. is investing more than $9 million to help school districts improve their counseling programs. The grants went to 284 school districts and charter schools across the state.

The point of the grants, according to Lilly Endowment, is to make sure Indiana schools are equipped to help students succeed outside of academic areas. School counseling programs vary greatly around the state – some struggle to afford one counselor, while others have a large team focused on student academic and emotional needs.

Lilly Endowment spokesperson Judith Cebula says the grants will enable the more than 200 schools across the state to study their current programs, or lack of one. The goal isn’t to use the money and just hire a counselor, but evaluate how counseling fits into the entire school.

“Really these are planning grants,” Cebula says. “We’re helping schools and school corporations figure out, what is comprehensive counseling? How are we doing? Are we doing it? Are we doing it well? Do we need to try new ideas? Where are our greatest needs.”

Cebula says the grants, which range from $8,000 to $50,000, can be used to hire consultants, travel to other school districts in the state or country to view other counseling models, or conduct research about a current program.

The grants last five years, and Lilly Endowment hopes districts find a way to sustain the program once the funding runs out.

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