Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom


Rachel Morello

Rachel Morello comes to StateImpact by way of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She has worked for various news and education-related organizations across the country - but no matter the locale, you’re sure to find her sporting a Packers jersey and tuning into “Car Talk.” You can follow her on Twitter @morellomedia.

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Charter Funding, ISTEP+ On The Docket For State Board

Indiana’s State Board of Education will address two of the most controversial education-related topics during their monthly meeting Wednesday: charter schools and standardized testing.

That’s because the state has continued to see issues related to both of these divisive subjects.

Multiple inquiries about charters’ 2015 Title I allocations during last month’s meeting prompted further examination of the Indiana Department of Education’s Title I funding assignment process in the following weeks. The U.S. Department of Education weighed in, saying the IDOE had been making calculations incorrectly and would likely have to take action to remedy their mistakes.

INSBOE members Byron Ernest (left), a charter school director, and Eddie Melton listen during a board meeting earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

INSBOE members Byron Ernest (left) and Eddie Melton listen during a board meeting earlier this year. (Photo Credit: Rachel Morello/StateImpact Indiana)

The board will discuss the situation Wednesday, most likely receiving an update from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, whose staff is working to provide the feds with Title I data dating all the way back to 2010.

The group will also take action on two charter-specific funding programs approved as part of the General Assembly‘s 2015 budget.

Back in August, the board approved eligibility requirements and application processes for the Charter and Innovation Network School grant program – which acts as a sort of property tax replacement for charters, who are not eligible for local tax dollars – and the Charter and Innovation School Advance Program, which allows those schools to apply for a loan from the state’s Common School Fund.

Read more specifics about the grant and loan programs here

On Wednesday the board will decide whether to approve specific recommendations for schools that have applied for grants. They will also decide how much money to set aside for new charters applying for loans during the 2016-17 school year – board staff recommend that amount be set at $10 million.

The ever-evolving statewide ISTEP+ test will also demand much of the board’s attention this month.

The process of releasing 2015 ISTEP+ scores has been delayed following an announcement from outgoing test vendor CTB that graders had encountered technological problems. CTB President Ellen Haley relayed this news in August, informing the board that meant they would not receive individual student scores until October.

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Why Not All Schools Offer Parent-Teacher Conferences

All week, we’ve brought you tips from both sides of the desk to show how mom and dad and school professionals can benefit from parent-teacher conferences.

But what if your district doesn’t officially coordinate these types of meetings?

Some Indiana school corporations require all teachers to hold semi-regular conferences, but some don’t. For example, Fort Wayne Community Schools organizes a district-wide system where all schools close to students for two days in the fall when parents can sign up to drop in and speak with their instructors.

The Monroe County Community School Corporation used to do things this way, but because of a change in state statute they shifted their model.

(Photo Credit: Alex McCall/WFIU News)

(Photo Credit: Alex McCall/WFIU News)

Before 2008, schools were allowed to “bank” time – in other words, they gave students two days off in the fall so teachers could spend that time meeting with parents and made up the instructional time by tacking it onto other days in the annual calendar.  When that rule changed, districts like MCCSC moved to offering conferences after school in the evenings.

But Tim Pritchett, MCCSC’s information officer, says that didn’t work so well for teachers’ schedules, so the district has switched to scheduling parent-teacher conferences on a school-by-school basis. All elementary teachers and required to offer conferences sometime in the fall, but it’s up to them to decide on specific dates and times and notify families.

Pritchett says this allows for more flexibility for both parties. If need be, educators can set up a time to meet working parents in the early morning or even on a Saturday.

“It ensures that the parent has that buy-in to show up to the meeting,” Pritchett says. “If it’s open drop-in, you could end up with a teacher sitting there and nobody ever showing up, or you could end up with a bunch of people showing up at the same time, which is not really productive either.”

Pritchett says district officials thought this method might be more helpful for families – but MCCSC parent Allison Rink says in some ways it makes things more difficult.

“As a parent, I would prefer to see them set on the calendar because you can plan ahead,” Rink says. “I feel like it’s an injustice for the teachers as well, with the length of the school day being as long as it is and then asking them to either stay after school and on weekends. Taking a half day is the traditional way to do it, and one that I think works,”

Rink, a former educator, regularly volunteers in her children’s classrooms (fifth grade at Binford Elementary and kindergarten at Rogers Elementary), so she says she feels like she already has a good idea of what’s going on and doesn’t needs the opportunity for additional meeting like other parents might.

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Educators: Balancing Give and Gain in Parent-Teacher Conferences

Fall is in full swing – that means midterms for college kids and fall break for most K-12 students. This time of year brings some homework for parents, too.

Many schools offer mom and dad the chance to meet with their child’s instructors around the midpoint of first semester. Every district handles parent-teacher conferences differently, as do families. But the research is clear: parents show up. According to the most recent available data from nonprofit data bank Child Trends, nearly 9 in 10 parents attend parent-teacher conferences each year.

Brittany McKee helps her sons Gage and Jayce Meza complete the craft that's part of the parent engagement night at Edgewood Primary School in Ellettesville.

Nearly 9 in 10 parents attend conferences with their children’s teachers each year, according to Child Trends. (Photo Credit: Bill Shaw/WTIU News)

And often, if its a couple’s first child – or a teacher’s first year at the school – the whole encounter can be pretty nerve-wracking.

All this week, StateImpact will take a closer look at parent-teacher conferences and talking to experts about how to make them less stressful and more impactful.

First up, how can teachers maximize their interactions for parents, as well as for their own purposes in the classroom?

For advice, we turned to Kathy Nimmer, Indiana’s 2015 Teacher of the Year. She has a few simple tips for teachers:

1. Do your homework

For the most part, parents only hear what their child remembers – or decides – to tell them about their day at school. As the teacher, Nimmer says, you should come to the discussion armed with a full picture of what you see coming from the student.

“When I began conferences I took a whole Saturday afternoon to go through all of my students, look over their grades and make some notes on each individual,” Nimmer says.

That includes academic performance as well as pertinent social information, Nimmer adds. She says teachers’ should also take note of any grade patterns or inconsistencies, and any trouble spots they may have noticed the student might need extra help with.

2. Start with the positive

Before diving into any gray area, it’s always good to reassure parents that their child is progressing. Nimmer says offering honest, candid feedback on the things their child has done well so far is a great way to start.

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Elections: Trend of Fewer School Questions In November Continues

Election season is fast approaching, which means local districts will once again have the opportunity to approach taxpayers to help fund school initiatives.

Since Indiana passed property tax reform measures in 2008, school corporations have seen a smaller share of local tax money. As a result, they now turn more often to referenda to fund construction and other projects. Just this past spring, 13 school districts placed 17 individual measures on their local ballots.

This go-around, there are only seven school-related measures statewide. The smaller number could be attributed to research that finds referenda offered in May have a better chance of passing – since spring ballots don’t include big races such as this year’s mayoral contests or next November’s presidential election, researchers say May is prime time for pro-referenda voter turnout.

Here’s a list of referenda that will appear on various local ballots November 3:

Construction referenda

  • Greater Clarke County Schools is asking for 39.27 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to finance what its calling the “2015 Multi-Facility Safety, Security, Technology, Construction and Restoration Project.” The district estimates the total project cost at around $109.2 million. Jerod Clapp of the News & Tribune reports the money will fund renovations for three district middle schools and one elementary, in addition to new buildings on existing sites for three other schools.
  • The East Noble School Corporation will ask for 34.06 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to fund construction of a new middle school building. The district attempted this same measure last fall to no avail.

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U.S. Officials Ask Indiana For Title I Data Dating Back to 2010

Indiana officials are working to send the U.S. Department of Education data on how the state allocated Title I funds dating back to 2010.

Leaders at the Indiana Department of Education, along with State Board of Education members and Indiana Charter School Board staff, participated in a conference call with federal officials Tuesday to discuss next steps for correcting errors in this year’s Title I distributions. This comes after several state charter schools questioned the IDOE’s process for distributing the funds for low-income kids.

Photo Credit: 401(K) 2012/Flickr

Photo Credit: 401(K) 2012/Flickr

State officials asked the feds in late September to weigh in, and they said Indiana’s system was incorrect. They discovered inconsistencies in the calculations used to divvy up awards for charters and traditional public schools, in addition to finding the state had not properly applied a federal rule governing Title I to all schools.

That rule, a provision in U.S. statute called “hold harmless,” says no school or “local education agency” may lose more than 15 percent of the previous year’s allocation.

Some Hoosier schools saw decreases of up to 33 percent this year. The feds determined nearly half of Indiana’s charter schools were shortchanged; in contrast, the same thing happened to fewer than one percent of traditional public schools.

The feds said IDOE officials will likely need to take “corrective action” to fix this year’s award amounts. The two departments are working to figure out exactly what that might entail – but first, they want to see how far back the problem may reach.

“During Tuesday’s call, federal officials expressed that it is possible that both charter and traditional public schools may have received an excess allocation of federal dollars over the years,” IDOE officials said in a statement. “This year, many schools have seen the possibility of a reduction…similar reductions were possible in previous years, but federal stimulus funding prevented cuts.”

The review will look at systems in place under current state Superintendent Glenda Ritz‘s leadership, as well as those administered by former superintendent Tony Bennett. Bennett served as state schools’ chief from 2008 to 2012.

IDOE spokesman Daniel Altman confirms Indiana has not changed its formula for Title I allocations in more than a decade.

Altman adds that during Tuesday’s conference call, no specific timeline was set for collecting and submitting the historical data.

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National Voice Offers Indiana Three Pieces of Advice On Testing

Mention standardized testing in the Hoosier state, and you’re sure to hear plenty of opinions.

Teachers and students spend a good portion of their instructional time preparing for and taking a variety of tests. And of late, state legislators and education officials have spent a decent chunk of their time discussing what to do about it.

Michael Cohen is president of Achieve, an independent, nonprofit education reform organization that regularly works with states on standards, assessments and accountability measures. The group has been a player on Indiana’s education scene for many years, most recently helping state officials review the newest set of academic standards before the state adopted them in 2014.

In other words, Cohen has been around the block. He’s seen several states go through situations similar to the one Indiana currently finds itself in: general dissatisfaction on the part of parents, teachers and many others with the state of standardized testing.

Lawmakers are evaluating their options. The latest discussion took place Wednesday, when the General Assembly‘s Interim Study Committee on Education met to discuss testing and the related reporting requirements imposed on Hoosier schools.

And they invited Cohen to add his two cents. Here’s what he had to say…

1. Make sure tests actually measure Indiana’s standards.

During the 2015 “education session,” some legislators suggested Indiana consider using an off-the-shelf test like those in use by other states (such as PARCC or Smarter Balanced).

The Indiana Statehouse. (Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

The Indiana Statehouse. (Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr)

This is precisely what Cohen warns against. He says adopting a test “off of a shelf someplace” means items are not likely to be designed with Indiana in mind.

“Those tests were developed for different purposes, and not particularly for Indiana standards,” Cohen explains.

Committee co-chair Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, agrees. He adds that from a business perspective, it wouldn’t make much sense for a national vendor to try to adapt their product to Indiana’s specific needs.

“All of our open-ended questions are released and made available to the public, so that would be a problem with a national vendor because the way they’re able to be lower cost is the fact that they’re able to use those in multiple states,” Behning says. “If you’re going to release every question, then you’re going to end up having to pilot everything in Indiana specific[ally].”

2. Better define “proficiency.”

Cohen says for the last several years, Indiana has been aiming well below the rest of the nation on their standard for proficiency, citing statistics from the statewide ISTEP+ in contrast to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely known as the “nation’s report card.”

The portion of fourth graders Indiana considered proficient in math in 2012-13 came in at 83.4 percent. The percentage of the nation’s fourth grade students labeled as proficient on NAEP sat closer to 35 percent.

That gap alarms Cohen.

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Department of Education: We’ll Recheck Title I Decisions

The Indiana Department of Education says they will heed federal advice to take another look at this year’s Title I allocations for state schools.

A handful of Indiana charter school leaders recently voiced concern that their awards for the 2015-16 school year fell well below levels allowed in federal statute while also challenging the IDOE to explain why their neighboring traditional public schools saw funding increases.

The Indiana Charter School Board and two of Indiana’s U.S. representatives echoed these calls, and in response the department requested feedback from their federal counterparts on Indiana’s process for doling out funds to low-income kids.

U.S. Department of Education staff responded via email last Thursday to let state officials know they had been calculating Title I awards incorrectly, advising they take “corrective action” to fix the situation.

IDOE spokesman Daniel Altman told the Indianapolis Business Journal that state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her colleagues will comply with the feds’ instruction:

“We want every school to be funded equitably,” Altman said. “We’re obviously going to make sure the schools get the money they were supposed to get.”

According to a provision in federal statute called “hold harmless,” no school – charter or traditional public – is supposed to get less than 85 percent of the previous year’s Title I allocation. The feds found that through Indiana’s process, about 47 percent of charter schools were receiving amounts below that allowable threshold. The same was true for less than one percent of the state’s traditional public schools.

Michelle McKeown, interim director for the state’s Charter School Board, says this is a step in the right direction.

“I’m pleased to see that the U.S. Department of Education was wiling to step into this,” McKeown says. “My hope is just that charter schools receive the dollars to which they are entitled.” 

McKeown will participate in a phone call with federal authorities Tuesday morning, along with State Board of Education and IDOE officials, to discuss next steps.

Feds: Indiana Needs To Fix Its 2015 Title I Allocations

In response to inquiries from several members of Indiana’s educational community, the feds have spoken – and they say Indiana calculated Title I funding incorrectly.

According to correspondence between federal and state officials, the U.S. Department of Education told Indiana officials that they will likely need to take “corrective action” on the allocations they made for the 2015-16 school year.

As we reported earlier in the week, several members of Indiana’s charter school community experienced significant losses in Title I funding for the current year, and they challenged the Indiana Department of Education about their practices of distributing such funds.

Some charter leaders were upset that they lost Title I funds while their neighboring traditional public schools saw an increase.

Additionally, many claimed their funding has shrunk below levels allowed by federal statute. Much of the confusion stemmed from a specific provision called “hold harmless,” which says a local education agency may not lose more than five, 10 or 15 percent of their Title I allocation from the previous year. How much a school retains depends on what their student population looks like, based on poverty numbers and other relevant statistics.

When local charters began asking questions, the IDOE told them that hold harmless does not apply to public charter schools because they are not considered a “local education agency.” The Indiana Charter School Board contacted the USED to see if this was true.

And according to the feds, it’s not – they say charter schools do count as LEAs, a unique kind that warrant special considerations the IDOE is not currently making.

In an email obtained by StateImpact, the Office of State Support at the U.S. Department of Education explained to Indiana officials that a state may not reduce any LEA’s allocation – including a charter school’s – below its hold harmless amount, unless there are insufficient funds to pay all LEAs their due amounts. The federally-established hold harmless amounts are based on poverty percentages as follows:

Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Credit: U.S. Department of Education

The IDOE had told the feds charter school enrollments generally fluctuate more than public school enrollments, so they reasoned it would be “educationally disruptive” to provide a shrinking charter 85, 90, or 95 percent of its prior year’s Title I allocation. They said that’s because it would likely be more than the charter could use, and would take away from other schools with more educationally at-risk children. 

The feds say this is “inconsistent with the statute and regulations,” because a state is not allowed to reduce any LEA below its hold harmless amount except in limited circumstances – none of which include a declining enrollment.

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Shelby County Will Foot Community College Bill For Local Students

Students in Shelby County will soon be able to attend college locally for free.

Both the Shelbyville City and County Councils unanimously approved a plan that will pay for two years at Ivy Tech Community College for local students who qualify – one of the first initiatives of its kind in Indiana.

Right now, only about 27 percent of Shelby County graduates go on to pursue education past high school. (Photo Credit: Abhi Sharma/Flickr)

Right now, only about 27 percent of Shelby County graduates go on to pursue education past high school. (Photo Credit: Abhi Sharma/Flickr)

Using funds largely received through the Indiana Grand Racing Casino, the “Advantage Shelby County” program will cover whatever costs federal Pell grants will not over two years. Local high school graduates can qualify if they enroll full-time at Ivy Tech, maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA and satisfactory academic progress benchmarks, and complete a minimum of 10 hours of community service per semester.

The program will be open to students pursuing degrees in Advanced Automation and Robotics Technology, Business Administration, General Studies or Transfer General Education Core. According to Dan McGowan at Inside Indiana Business, city and county council members selected these pathways with help from industry representatives.

Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun describes his industrial town as a blue-collar community. He says the program will address a main concern for all area industries: maintaining a sustainable workforce.

“We know we’re not Indianapolis, we know that we’ll never have that downtown nightlife. We know that we won’t have the appeal of a Chicago or a San Francisco or a New York City,” DeBaun says. “But what we want to do is have the job opportunities and the community amenities to bring those kids home when they’re ready to raise their families. And to do that, you’ve got to have quality of place and job opportunities.”

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State Seeks Federal Guidance On Charter Funding Practices

The Indiana Department of Education is in contact with federal officials to obtain some guidance about how they should approach funding for charter schools.

As we reported earlier in the week, several Indiana charters have raised concerns recently about significant decreases in their Title I money for the current school year. Many are upset that their funding has shrunk below levels allowed in federal statute for “local education agencies,” a label they argue should apply to them.

In addition, some charter leaders say their neighboring traditional public schools saw an increase in Title I funding, which leads to questions about how the entitlement is calculated on the state level. Many are worried about the lack of clarity.

IDOE staff has asked the U.S. Department of Education to advise on this point. In particular, the department is asking about the calculation of Title I funds for charter schools “in light of an overall reduction of Title I dollars and a significant decrease in the Census Poverty Count for several charter schools,” according to a statement.

“Title I dollars are provided by the federal government to help schools that have high levels of poverty,” the statement reads. “Generally speaking, the Census Poverty Count is one of the major factors in the formula that determines how much a school receives in its Title I allocation.  This year, many schools saw a reduction in their Census Poverty Count, which could lead to a reduction in their Title I allocation.”

The IDOE will communicate with both charter and traditional public schools once it receives further federal guidance.  

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