Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Peter Balonon-Rosen

Reporter

Peter Balonon-Rosen is a multimedia reporter/producer for WFIU/WTIU news. Peter covers issues, innovations and reforms that affect Indiana education. He comes to WFIU/WTIU from WBUR in Boston, where he served as lead education reporter for WBUR's Learning Lab. Peter graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor's degree in American Studies and certificate in Film Studies. When he's not in the newsroom, Peter enjoys playing music, arguing about who's the best Ramone (Dee Dee, duh) and reading good fiction. You can follow him on Twitter @pbalonon_rosen. Email: pbalonon@indiana.edu

To Prevent Sex Crimes, Lawmakers Want More Background Checks For School Staff

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has authored two bills expanding teacher background checks. The bills are currently being considered by the Indiana House Committee on Education. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has authored two bills expanding teacher background checks. The bills are currently being considered by the Indiana House Committee on Education. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

As Indiana lawmakers consider measures to strengthen the school background check laws, the Indiana Department of Education is investigating 85 cases of alleged educator misconduct, according to department officials.

Of the 85 licensed educators currently under investigation approximately 40 involve at least an allegation, if not charges, of sexual or inappropriate contact with a student.

“Teachers and employees at public schools, and other schools for that matter, are having wrongful relationships with the students,” says Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn).

Recent headlines:

In response, Kruse, chair of the Indiana House Committee on Education, is recommending proposed changes to Indiana background check laws.

In proposed legislation, all employees, would be required to get background checks every five years.

“After a period of five years, things may have happened in your life,” Kruse says. “You may have made some wrong decisions and the school doesn’t know about it.”

While districts do give new employees – from teachers to cafeteria staff to school aides – background checks within three months of starting, that law took effect in 2009. So plenty of staff hired before then, never have had a background check.

Under Kruse’s proposed changes, all employees would be checked for criminal history and allegations, in- and out-of-state.

Most Cases Are ‘People Without Any Prior Criminal History’

Over at the Indiana Department of Education, Kelly Bauder is a department staff attorney.

“One of my main responsibilities is to work on teacher license, suspensions and revocations,” Bauder says.

Since 2013, the department has revoked 48 educator licenses for misconduct. All 48 cases included sex offenses, which could include child seduction, sexual misconduct with a minor and child molestation.

Of those, 13 eventually pled to a lesser offense or were not charged with a sex crime. Actions like sexting aren’t necessarily criminal.

“We get a lot of cases that we see that didn’t rise to the level of being charged criminally, but were inappropriate,” Bauder says. “And sexting is probably one of the biggest ones that I get.”

Bauder says extending background checks is a good first step.

“I think it just can’t hurt,” Bauder says. She says it will allow the cadre of Indiana educators hired before 2009 to get background checks.

But the education department isn’t counting on lawmakers to fix the problem.

“We don’t wait, here at the department for the legislature telling us that we should be doing things,” Bauder says.

She says, prevention measures, like trainings around ethical and professional behavior, are more important than checking someone’s past.

“The majority of the cases that I see are people without any prior criminal history,” Bauder says.

Meaning, background checks wouldn’t have stopped them from getting into schools in the first place.

To address the issue, the department offers video trainings and runs a school safety academy to help staff identify signs of misconduct.

Volunteers Could Be Left Out Of Legislation Changes

While the proposed changes to the law would now check all school employees, each district would still make its own rules for volunteers, including some coaches.

And that concerns the department, because, Bauder says, if a volunteer coach is let go for sexual misconduct, but not charged with a crime, he or she could get a job elsewhere. They’d have no criminal record.

“Until someone takes responsibility, for it and is willing to require that coaches have a license that could be revoked so they can’t move from school to school, that will be a continuing problem that the department simply can’t address, if they’re not a licensed teacher, as well,” Bauder says.

Now some districts, do require background checks for volunteers. Jeff Hendrix, head of Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, says there’s no statewide standard – individual districts make their own policies.

“If they’re paid by the school corporation, they’re going to have the check,” Hendrix says. “If they’re coaches or volunteers – we have done, in the past, limited criminal history checks as well.”

None of the three background check bills currently being reviewed by Senate and House committees on education include volunteers – it’d still be up to individual schools and districts.

Bills currently under consideration:

    • SB 34: Provides that school corporation, charter school or nonpublic school conduct expanded criminal history checks and expanded child protection index checks on each employee every five years. Employees are responsible for the costs.
    • SB 298: Requires an individual to have a completed expanded criminal history check and expanded child protection index check before beginning employment. (Current law allows individuals to be employed for up to three months before the checks are completed)
    • HB 1079: Requires an individual to have a completed expanded criminal history check and expanded child protection index check before beginning employment. Provides that school corporation, charter school or nonpublic school may conduct expanded criminal history checks and expanded child protection index checks on each employee every five years.

We’re following this issue. Have a story you’d like to tell or tip for following up on misconduct? Reach reporter Peter Balonon-Rosen at pbalonon@indiana.edu.

Indiana High School Graduation Rate Rises Slightly In 2016

The percentage of Indiana students graduating high school rose in 2016.

Barely, just barely, but it rose.

Indiana’s overall four-year high school graduation rate rose to 89.1 percent in 2016. That’s up from 88.9 percent in 2015. Those rates include students who received waivers from completing certain graduation requirements.

The 2016 rate for students without waivers is 82.36 percent, down from 82.8 percent in 2015. As we’ve reported, the 2015 rates were a drop from the year before.

“It is also important to note the progress Indiana has made over the past ten years,” said Amanda Eller, a spokesperson for Indiana state superintendent Jennifer McCormick, in a statement.

In the past decade, the graduation rate increased over 10 percent. The Indiana four-year graduation rate was 78.2 percent in 2006 and rose to 89.1 percent in 2016.

This week, the Indiana Department of Education released statewide, district and school data as part of its annual reporting.

(Indiana Department of Education )

(Indiana Department of Education )

Eleven school districts reported a 100 percent graduation rate.

They include Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., Rossville Consolidated School District, South Henry School Corp., North Knox School Corp., Tri-Township Cons School Corp., Eminence Community School Corp., Randolph Southern School Corp., Southwestern Consolidated School District, North Spencer County School Corp., West Lafayette Com School Corp. and Signature School Inc..

Indianapolis Public Schools saw an uptick to 76.9 percent, from 72.1 percent in 2015.

Ft. Wayne Community Schools, the state’s largest district, also saw a graduation rate jump to 89.2 percent – an increase from 86.8 percent in 2015.

East Gibson School Corporation, a small district in southwestern Indiana, saw the state’s largest graduation rate increase. The district moved from 77.1 percent in 2015 to 98.1 percent in 2016.

State Board Of Education Releases 2016 School District A-F Grades

Over 150 schools saw their rating dip, with 90 percent of Indiana schools receiving a B or C rating. (Biologycorner/Flickr)

More than 150 schools saw their rating dip, with 90 percent of Indiana schools receiving a B or C rating. (Biologycorner/Flickr)

The state board of education released district A-F grades Wednesday for the 2015-2016 school year. More than 150 schools saw their rating dip, with 90 percent of Indiana schools receiving a B or C rating.

Only 23 school corporations received an A rating. Gary Community Schools in northwest Indiana received the state’s single F rating.

As we’ve reported, the 2016 grades reflect an unexpected jump in the number of schools receiving Bs or Cs, and a sharp decrease in schools receiving As or Fs.

In 2015, 46 percent of district received A ratings. In 2016, only 7 percent received A ratings.

Jennifer McCormick, the new state superintendent of public instruction, says seeing the decrease is frustrating.

“There’s not much credibility placed on those grades right now,” McCormick says. “But you have a lot a lot of important accountability hanging on that, including teacher pay.”

McCormick says restoring faith in the state-produced grades begins with fixing the state’s standardized ISTEP test, which largely determines school district grades.

“It’s our goal, coming out of it in the spring, to get that assessment piece right,” McCormick says.

A new formula uses test scores in a variety of ways to determine a school’s grade. Districts are rated on how many students pass, and now, for the first time, how students have improved on tests.

The 2016 grades reflect the first time in two years that Indiana districts were allowed to receive lower grades than the year before.

In 2015, the education board voted to change how they awarded A-F grades, after ISTEP+ scores across the state dropped dramatically. They enacted a “hold harmless” provision, meaning a school district’s score wouldn’t change if their 2015 score was lower than their 2014 score.

In 2016, schools were awarded whatever score they received.

Below, find your district’s 2016 score, 2015 “hold harmless” score and 2015 actual score.

Report: Indiana’s Teacher Evaluation Law Needs Update

In a new report, Indiana University researchers recommend that Indiana's teacher evaluation law be changed. They want it to focus on new teachers, separate teacher pay from evaluations and include measures to take students living in poverty into consideration. (Alex McCall/WFIU News)

In a new report, Indiana University researchers recommend that Indiana’s teacher evaluation law be changed. They want it to focus on new teachers, separate teacher pay from evaluations and include measures that consider the number of students living in poverty. (Alex McCall/WFIU News)

Researchers studying Indiana methods for evaluating teacher performance say districts should develop clearer and more consistent reviews.

As part of an ongoing project to help schools meet a state law that changed teacher evaluations in Indiana, a research group spent the last four years studying how districts measure and deliver feedback to their teachers. The group is based at the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University and led by researches Hardy Murphy and Sandi Cole,

In a new report, they recommend the law be changed to focus on new teachers and separate teacher pay from evaluations. They also recommend lawmakers tweak the formula to take student poverty into consideration.

“When you look at different teacher ratings, there seems to be a strong association there with the percentage of students on free- and reduced-lunch in classrooms,” Murphy says.

Murphy says, more than any other factor, larger numbers of students on free- and reduced-lunch correlates with lower teacher evaluations. Continue Reading

Holcomb Wants Top Education Official To Be Appointed, Not Elected

Indiana Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb wants to create an appointed secretary of education position. In this file photo, Holcomb appears at a campaign event on Aug. 1, 2016. (Brandon J. Smith / Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Indiana Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb wants to create an appointed secretary of education position. In this file photo, Holcomb appears at a campaign event on Aug. 1, 2016. (Brandon J. Smith / Indiana Public Broadcasting)”

Indiana Governor-elect Eric Holcomb says changing the state’s top education official into an appointed, not elected, position will be one his top priorities during the 2017 legislative session.

Holcomb wants to eliminate the elected state superintendent of public instruction position, in favor of an appointed secretary of education.

“This is not about the person, me or the superintendent,” Holcomb says. “This is about the position and how they can be aligned to work truly together.”

Currently, Indiana is one of 13 states that elect a school chiefs. Continue Reading

Our Favorite Education Photos Of 2016

Ximena, 4, kicks a soccer ball the IN Region 4 Migrant Preschool Center. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Ximena, 4, kicks a soccer ball the IN Region 4 Migrant Preschool Center. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

As the year comes to an end, we’re taking a look back at the best photos from our stories this year. We’re out there with microphones, our reporter’s notebooks and, also, our cameras.

You welcomed us into your schools, your communities and your homes. This is what we saw.

(In order of publish date. Click to enlarge.)

(Peter Balonon-Rosen/StateImpact Indiana)

(Peter Balonon-Rosen/StateImpact Indiana)

When first-year third grade teacher Gabe Hoffman became a pitching coach at the local high school, planning and grading moved into the weekends, meaning less time with his girlfriend Chelsea. But she’s a first year teacher too, and he says he’s thankful for that, because someone else wouldn’t understand: teaching is a 24/7 job.

And sometimes school and personal life overlap. Listen here.

Hiroko Murabayashi moved to Columbus, Ind. in August with her husband and two kids for her husband's job at Enkei. Yoki, 9, and Rico, 7, both attend Southside Elementary school in the Bartholomew County School Corporation and receive English language services. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Hiroko Murabayashi moved to Columbus, Ind. in August with her husband and two kids for her husband\’s job at Enkei. Yoki, 9, and Rico, 7, both attend Southside Elementary school in the Bartholomew County School Corporation and receive English language services. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)” credit=”Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting

Believe it or not, Japanese is the most common first language for most of Columbus, Ind.’s english learner students, besides Spanish. As language teachers work to accommodate students from a variety of cultures, it’s also a task navigating American culture for recent immigrants.

Leah Hession speaks to classmates during an Inside Out class at Indianapolis Re-entry Educational Facility. She says the class is more like a family, than a college course. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Leah Hession speaks to classmates during an Inside Out class at Indianapolis Re-entry Educational Facility. She says the class is more like a family, than a college course. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Indiana used to boast a robust prison education program. In recent years, that’s changed. We found one class that teaches people who are incarcerated, alongside college students. And through the process, both learn about the lives’ of the other.

Fort Wayne Community Schools will spend about $10,000 on billboards this summer. District spokesperson Krista Stockman says state funding from a gain of two new students would pay for the billboards. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Fort Wayne Community Schools will spend about $10,000 on billboards this summer. District spokesperson Krista Stockman says state funding from a gain of two new students would pay for the billboards. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

In Indiana, families can choose where to send their to school — private, charter or public school. The aim behind providing this choice? Proponents say it will force all schools to better themselves. Whether it has done that remains controversial. But it has given birth to a new reality for public schools: with education competition, comes the need for education marketing.

The modified bathroom in the new Carrie Gosch Elementary School. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The modified bathroom in the new Carrie Gosch Elementary School. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

After dangerous levels of lead were found in soil next to Carrie Gosch Elementary School, the school moved into an old middle school, the district had to make adjustments to accommodate younger students. Toilets, counters and other structures had to be lowered, but the district didn’t have enough time and money to get all of the work done before school started.

YMCA staff work on swimming skills with preschool students on August 30, 2016. According to a body of research, when kids swimm at an early age they gain a number of educational benefits. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

YMCA staff work on swimming skills with preschool students on August 30, 2016. According to a body of research, when kids swim at an early age they gain a number of educational benefits. (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Swimming at an early age can help children maintain a healthy weight, develop better sleeping patterns and aid brain development. Studies suggest that early year-round swimming lessons for young children accelerates physical, intellectual and emotional development. And children who learn to swim at a young age often reach many developmental milestones earlier than others.

Ellyn McCall and her son Seth 8 at the Hear Indiana offices. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Ellyn McCall and her son Seth 8 at the Hear Indiana offices. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

As more and more Indiana children born deaf or hard of hearing turn towards technology, instead of American Sign Language, school are also facing changes. We look at how they’re working to adapt.

The IN Region 4 Migrant Preschool Center, a free preschool for migrant children teaches students, age 2 to 5, in English and Spanish to prepare migrant children for school, wherever it may be. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The IN Region 4 Migrant Preschool Center, a free preschool for migrant children teaches students, age 2 to 5, in English and Spanish to prepare migrant children for school, wherever it may be. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

In this story from October, we took a look behind the scenes of a preschool for migrant children. Depending on the season, Indiana farms employ between 2,000 and 20,000 migrant farm workers. When workers migrate, often their families do, too. And for their children — many with interrupted schooling, histories of trauma, limited English —  preschool can be especially important.

Lorelei Jaffe went to vote with her mom. She brought along the book "White House Dog", and when asked if a dog would make a good president? "I guess so." (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Lorelei Jaffe went to vote with her mom. She brought along the book \”White House Dog\”, and when asked if a dog would make a good president? \”I guess so.\” (Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)” credit=”

On election day, we set out to see what the youngest amongst us thought of the election. And why voting is important. In their own words, here’s what they had to say.

A group of solar panels at Sheridan Elementary School. Sheridan Community Schools, in Hamilton County, is now one of Indiana's first completely solar powered school districts. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

A group of solar panels at Sheridan Elementary School. Sheridan Community Schools, in Hamilton County, is now one of Indiana\’s first completely solar powered school districts. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)” credit=”

Facing rising energy costs, one rural district in the heart of central Indiana took a unique approach to manage: They went completely solar. Sheridan Community Schools estimates they can save $4 million to $5 million over the next 20 years.

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

For children with autism, reading others’ emotions and body language can be like a foreign language. But languages can be learned. And improv comedy classes can serve as a language immersion program. This class, specifically designed for 6- to 9-year-olds with high functioning autism, uses improv to teach social skills to children with autism.

Reporter’s Notebook: Covering Race, Suspension and Bias In 2016

Data from the Department of Education provides a snapshot of civl rights in U.S. schools. Indiana schools use suspension more often than most of the nation’s schools. (Eric Castro/Flickr)

Data from the Department of Education provides a snapshot of civl rights in U.S. schools. Indiana schools use suspension more often than most of the nation’s schools. (Eric Castro/Flickr)

I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a nerd.

Yes, I like math. Yes, I like digging through data sets. So when the U.S. Department of Education released the largest data set it ever compiled on civil rights in schools, unsurprisingly, I was pumped.

I cracked my knuckles and excitedly dove into the Civil Rights Data Collection. This report breaks down civil rights data for every public school and school district in the country. (Full disclosure: the file was actually so big my computer actually crashed on the initial download)

And Indiana’s data is not great. Indiana schools suspend more students than most.

Hoosier students with disabilities and students of color accumulated 75,000 suspensions in 2014. And while black students make up about 12 percent of statewide enrollment, they make up 34 percent of the total suspensions. More than 1 in 4 black boys are suspended from Indiana schools.

Many suspensions can be for non-violent, non-drug related incidents. Situations that require a judgment call.

“We see the greatest disparities in those categories, like defiance and non-compliance,” Russ Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University, told us in June.

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

(Lauren Chapman/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

So I set out to find schools and teachers working to combat these racial disparities and I met Ayana Coles.

Coles, a third grade teacher at Eagle Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis’ Pike Township, was gathering her colleagues after school for open, honest conversations about race. Her goal? Generate conversation about race and power, with the hope that teachers acknowledge and address the ways race plays out in the classroom.

These informal sessions, led by Coles, could get raw. As I sat through one, teachers frankly stood up and said they were raised not to trust black people. Or not to trust white people. And that they felt like this got in the way of relating to their students.

It was a judgment free zone where teachers listened, learned and offered advice.

Ayana Coles sits with her students at Eagle Creek Elementary School. At Eagle Creek, students of color make up 77 percent of the student body. Yet, all but four of the school's 37 staff are white. Coles has led conversations about race with colleagues throughout the year. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Ayana Coles sits with her students at Eagle Creek Elementary School. At Eagle Creek, students of color make up 77 percent of the student body. Yet, all but four of the school’s 37 staff members are white. Coles led conversations about race with colleagues throughout the year. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)”

Teachers I spoke with at Eagle Creek said the sessions challenged their beliefs and made them think about how their preconceived notions impact their students’ lives.

“Like what I think is misbehavior,” said Jason Coons, the Eagle Creek music teacher. “I’m not trying to sound like some hippie or something, but like, OK, is this really actually something that needs to be addressed or is this just, because it’s so different from what I grew up with, that I view this as offensive?”

Coles has been recognized for her work. Her principal adopted the sessions into teacher training. The state board of education pointed to this work as one of the state’s most promising teaching practices.

Lynae Gude, 9, works on a class assignment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Lynae Gude, 9, works on a class assignment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

And Coles has similar conversations with her third grade students, too. I asked her who’s easier to have these conversations with: Staff or students?

“Kids, absolutely the kids,” Coles said. “Because they’re honest, they’re just like, ‘This is what I think, so this is what I’m going to say.’”

And Coles’ students that I spoke with, like 9-year-old Lynae Gude, said those discussions helped them think about the world differently.

“You can have power for any perspective that you have,” she says. “Like if you look at the world and you see negativity, you can be an advocate and say something about it.”

Check out the full story here.

Whose Line Is It Really?: How Improv Benefits Children With Autism

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

When he gets excited, he gets really excited.

And for 8-year-old Shaw, tonight he’s excited for the warm up. From the moment he walks in, he can’t wait. The blonde boy, in his gray and black zip up sweatshirt, is eager to to shake his limbs. Scream a countdown.

And then, he’s ready.

Like the other children gathered beneath the bright fluorescent lights at Indiana State University’s psychology clinic, Shaw’s here for a class specifically designed for 6- to 9-year-olds with high functioning autism. He’s here to practice a skill that, until recently, seemed reserved for comedians and actors.

Improv theater.

But, instead of entertainment, tonight it’s being used by one of a growing number of groups that use improv to teach social skills to children with autism.

For children with autism, socializing can be hard because it involves things like taking turns.

“And waiting is very, very, very hard for people with autism and anxiety,” says Janna Graf, Shaw’s mother.

She knows. Two of her four children are diagnosed with autism, attention deficit disorder and anxiety. When Shaw was young, it was hard.

“When he was 3, man, he screamed every day for eight hours a day, for six months,” Graff says. “And he’s just awesome.”

These days, once a week, Graff takes Shaw to the social skills group in the form of an improv theater class.

The improv theater class at Indiana State University’s psychology clinic. Rachel Magin, center, created the class to help children with autism learn social skills and practice reading others' emotions. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

The improv theater class at Indiana State University’s psychology clinic. Rachel Magin, center, created the class to help children with autism learn social skills and practice reading others’ emotions. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Rachel Magin, an ISU doctoral student in psychology, designed the class. Her aim is to help these children focus on the different ways people communicate.

“Through our facial expressions, through the way our body language shows it or just the tone of our voice,” Magin says.

Over the course of the seven-week class, Magin is gathering feedback on how children, like Shaw, interpret these things, the modes of communication that are not words.

“Children with autism just are not able to read those cues as well,” Magin says.

For children with autism, those cues can be like a foreign language.

“And they haven’t necessarily learned that language,” Magin says.

But languages can be learned. And improv classes can serve as a language immersion program, of sorts.

Shaw, 8, looks on as his sister Silas, 6, participates in an improv game. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Shaw, 8, looks on as his sister Silas, 6, participates in an improv game. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

“OK, here’s what we’re going to do,” says Erin McTiernan, Magin’s co-teacher, as she gathers the class.

They proceed with a fairly typical improv game: Shaw and classmates pick sentences out of a bright white envelope and randomly choose a card with an emotion on it. Their task: say that sentence, in that emotion.

It’s a child-friendly version of Whose Line Is It Anyway’s “Scene From A Hat.”

Sometimes it runs smoothly. McTiernan helps a 6-year-old student with her combination.

“Say ‘it sounds great’ in a happy voice,” McTiernan says.

“Yay! It sounds great in a happy voice! Yay!” the child responds. “Yay! Yay!”

But – like in real life – the way you say the words changes their meaning. So when emotions don’t obviously line up with the words, it can be more of a challenge for these children.

Like the phrase “it’s over.”

“It’s over!,” says Jake, a 9-year-old. Now, the others have to guess the emotion.

“Umm, sad,” someone guesses.

“No.”

“Scared.”

“No.”

“Happy.”

“Yes!”

Magin, the teacher, uses it as a teaching moment.

“What would have helped him to show that he was happy?” Magin asks the class.

Silas – Shaw’s 6-year-old sister doesn’t have autism, but comes with her brother – she knows.

“Yay! It’s over! Yay, it’s over! Yay!” Silas says, jumping in her blue and black striped sweater.

“OK, so jumping up and down, having the voice get a little higher and a little louder,” Magin says. The children nod.

Erin McTiernan (left) looks on as Rachel Magin leads a class exercise. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Erin McTiernan (left) looks on as Rachel Magin leads a class exercise. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

And they improvise other situations, too.

“We’re gonna role play how to deal with anxiety,” McTiernan, the other teacher, says.

Perhaps, it’s something we all could use, but for these children it’s especially important. Children with autism can experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.

In an improvised scene with his sister, Shaw plays someone nervous about going to a new school.

“I think it’s going to be scary,” Shaw says.

In the scene, his sister has advice.

“Take deep breaths and you will not be scared,” Silas says.

The idea of the class is pretty straightforward – if children act out different situations, think about their emotions and how they show them — they’ll communicate more clearly in real life.

“[Improv] is being recognized as kind of a technology for human connection and communication,” says Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University.

Ansaldo also runs Camp Yes And, an improv summer camp for teens with autism and performs improv himself. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are rare – he knows about a half dozen – but their number is growing.

Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University, in his office. Ansaldo also runs an improv summer camp for teens with autism. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are spreading. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University, in his office. Ansaldo also runs an improv summer camp for teens with autism. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are spreading. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

“What improv really does is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice, where mistakes really don’t matter,” Ansaldo says.

And Janna Graf, Shaw’s mother, says the change is real. She saw it when the 8-year-old – who, she says, can ramble – introduced himself at a church group.

“When he learned about ‘how to stop and pause and take a moment,’ he said, ‘My name’s Shaw, I’m 8-years-old,’ and then he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person,” Graf says. “And realized it was his turn.”

She felt wonderful.

And it’s this kind of feedback that the researchers are using to see how this improv class transfers to real social skills. So far, they’re encouraged by the early results.

Struggling Gary Schools Could See Financial Boost From City

A city agreement could provide $200,000 to $300,000 of tax increment financing money to the Gary Community School Corporation. (Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

A city agreement could provide $200,000 to $300,000 of tax increment financing money to the Gary Community School Corporation. (Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

After Gary voters last month turned down a request to increase taxes that would have provided their financially-troubled school district about $8.7 million annually, the school district may find financial reprieve through another source.

A city agreement could provide $200,000 to $300,000 of tax increment financing money to the Gary Community School Corp., the NWI Times reports. The arrangement could also provide money through the sale of some vacant, or unused, school district property.

Under the plan, the school corporation will receive 40 percent of tax increment revenue from all its tax increment financing districts after bonds and existing obligations are taken into account.

“That number will likely fall between $200,000 and $300,000,” [Joe Van Dyk, executive director of planning and development for the city] said.

In addition, Van Dyk said the district will receive 15 percent of the gross of new tax increment money from new districts. These include the East Lakefront district created for the Miller transit oriented development area last year and the Northwest Indiana Industrial Complex district just approved by the City Council.

In addition to the pledge of these revenues, Van Dyk said a memorandum of understanding is being finalized that would allow the Redevelopment Commission to market and sell vacant school properties on the school corporation’s behalf. The commission would receive a 1 percent administrative fee under the proposed arrangement.

“The goal is to get vacant GCSC properties back to productive use and back on the tax rolls, to our mutual benefit,” Van Dyk said.

Clemons said it also would allow the city and school corporation to get rid of some of the vacant buildings that have become eyesores.

City officials anticipate the city could begin providing money to the school corporation by February.

In November, Gary Community Schools officials asked the Legislature to help with their financial woes. At that time, the district was nearly $100 million in debt and facing delays in payroll. Continue Reading

‘ISTEP’ Name May Change, But Test Itself May Not For 2 More Years

The state's leading education lawmakers want to extend Pearson's testing contract, to avoid rushing into a botched replacement for ISTEP+. In this 2013 file photo, House education committee chair Bob Behning (left) and Senate education committee chair Dennis Kruse attend a state panel. (Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana)

Indiana’s leading education lawmakers want to extend Pearson’s testing contract, to avoid rushing into a botched replacement for ISTEP+. In this 2013 file photo, House education committee chair Bob Behning (left) and Senate education committee chair Dennis Kruse attend a state panel. (Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana)

The testing magnate Pearson Education could see their Indiana testing contract extended for an additional two years. Top education officials announced Wednesday it would give Indiana the time it needs to create a replacement for the state’s troubled ISTEP+ exam.

“We need about two-and-a-half to three years to get a new test that is sound, based on our standards, thought out and vetted clearly through the education system,” says Sen. Dennis Kruse, chair of the Senate committee on education. “That’ll [be] a better test at the end of that time.”

Pearson is currently contracted to be in charge of ISTEP+ through spring 2017. The Indiana State Board of Education has the option to renew that contract for an additional two years.

Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the House committee on education, wants the board to extend that contract. If extended, it would leave ISTEP+ in place through the 2018-19 school year.

Without the extension, current law requires a new test to be in place by May 2017.

“Expecting to have an assessment in place by May is, to me, rushing it,” Behning says.

Even though the test would include the same questions and come from the same vendor, if the Pearson contract is extended, lawmakers plan to rebrand the test with a new name.

“The assessment will be similar, but we’ll have to figure out if we want to keep the name,” Behning says. “I don’t think we’ll call the assessment, after this spring, ‘ISTEP.’ I think it will be something different.”

This comes at the end of a tumultuous year for testing in Indiana.

In March, lawmakers passed a law ending ISTEP+ after spring 2017, after critiques of the test’s length, delays in scores and cost. The same law created a state panel to study alternatives to the ISTEP+. That panel recommended that lawmakers extend their timeline, in order to avoid implementing a rushed, botched test in spring 2017.

“The real communication by the panel was ‘Don’t rush it,’” Behning says.

Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Brandon Smith and WFIU’s JD Gray contributed to this report.

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