Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

U.S. Rep Says Fewer Schools Should Offer Free Lunch To All Students

Rokita's legislation, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, would restrict the number of schools able to provide free lunch to any and all students. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

U.S. Congressman Todd Rokita’s legislation, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, would restrict the number of schools able to provide free lunch to any and all students. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — U.S. Congressman Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, argued the government should cut back on free school lunch programs when he attended Wednesday’s State Board of Education Meeting.

Rep. Rokita, former Indiana secretary of state, proposed federal legislation last month that would tighten eligibility for free school lunch programs across the country. He says funds saved from reducing the number of federal school-wide lunch programs could be used for breakfast or summer meal programs instead.

“I can do what I swore I would do … and that is not add to our national debt,” Rokita told board members.

A 2010 law allows a school to serve free lunches to all students if at least 40 percent of students participate in other government assistance programs, such as food stamps and medicaid. Supporters of the law say it cuts overhead costs, with the idea that it costs more to separately determine who qualifies for free- and reduced-lunch than it does to make lunch free for all students in these schools, regardless of income.

But Rokita says that means the program may be used by families who don’t need it.

“When did we get to a point in this country when families aren’t responsible for feeding their children?” Rokita said. “And instead the government is?”

Rokita’s legislation, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, would restrict the number of schools able to provide free lunch to any and all students. It would move the qualification threshold from 40 percent in government assistance programs to 60 percent. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the measure could save taxpayers around one billion dollars over the course of ten years.

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Testing Advisory Committee Raises Concerns Over ISTAR Test

A testing advisory committee raied concerns about an assessment that tests students with severe cognitive disabilities. (Photo Credit: Robbie/Flickr)

A testing advisory committee raised concerns about an assessment that tests students with severe cognitive disabilities. (Photo Credit: Robbie/Flickr)

A state testing committee recommended the State Board of Education not include test scores from an assessment for students with cognitive disabilities into school A-F grades. The advisory committee cited issues with that assessment’s validity.

The Indiana Standards Tools for Alternate Reporting, or ISTAR, is the assessment in question. It’s an alternative to ISTEP+ for students with significant cognitive abilities. This is the first year students took the test, and the state’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), a group that provides guidance on testing issues, says it might not be valid.

The ISTAR costs the state $2.5 million each year, and tests around 7,000 students in grades three through eights as well as tenth grade.

The way this assessment works: All students taking it take a version in the fall that places them on one of three tiers, levels one through three. Level one is the least challenging of the test versions and level three is the most challenging. Then, three times throughout the year, ISTAR students take the assessment at the level they tested into.

The problem occurs with the scoring of this assessment, because each level is scored the same way. So a student taking the more challenging level three version could score less than a student who took the level one, even though his or her test was harder.

The TAC found, after the test was implemented for the 2015-2016 school year, that this scoring system isn’t fair to all of the students.

At the State Board of Education’s work session Tuesday, members of the TAC told the board they would recommend not using these scores in 2016 A-F school scores.

ISTAR’s test vendor, Questar, tried to put the different levels of the test on the same plane by putting common questions in all the tests. But the number of these questions worries TAC member Karla Egan.

“There weren’t enough to feel secure,” said Egan.

Fellow TAC member and testing consultant Ed Roeber echoed the concerns, saying the score on ISTAR doesn’t give the state a good picture of how these students performed.

“If you can’t compare the performance on tier one, two or three items, you may have a situation where fewer students are passing the third tier,” Roeber said. “You might conclude they didn’t do as well on the assessment.”

Roeber suggested the TAC should be involved in test development from the earliest stages, rather than reviewing it once it’s created.

Many board members raised concerns about this process, saying this issue should have been caught earlier.

“I’m just curious,” asked board member Vince Bertram. “At what point are those type of issues discussed, rather than administering the test and coming to this conclusion.”

But Michelle Walker, Director of Assessment for the Department of Education, says it was challenging to develop the test in only six months. This is because the previous test used for these students was part of a national consortium, which the state had to pull out of after the legislature said Indiana couldn’t be part of testing consortiums.

The TAC is meeting Thursday, and the test vendor, Questar, will present possible solutions to address this issue.

Argos School Officials Say They Will Seek Second Referendum

Officials in a small northern Indiana school district say the battle to fund their struggling school system isn’t over.

Argos Community School officials say they plan to present a ballot referendum in a May 2017 special election. Ballot referenda directly ask voters to choose whether to support a particular proposal – in this case, higher taxes to fund schools.

It will be the district’s second attempt to convince residents to give money directly to the district.

“You could either do the referendum again or continue to make cuts every time your revenue dropped,” said Michele Riise, Argos Community Schools superintendent. “That’s nothing we want to do.”

This past May’s referendum on the primary ballot asked for an increase of up to 61 cents on each $100 of assessed property value. For a home valued at $100,000 that would have been about $200 extra each year.

That referendum failed. Fifty-nine percent of voters said no.

Don Thompson is one of the residents who voted no. He is a former school board member and farmland owner. He says farmers already pay high property taxes and responsibility lies with the state, since the state funds public schools. Continue Reading

Muncie Schools To Reduce Teaching Staff Amidst Budget Issues

Over the last few years, Muncie Community Schools have struggled to maintain its budget after property tax caps and a new funding formula went into place. They will end transportation services in 2018 and get rid of 37 positions this summer.

Over the last few years, Muncie Community Schools has struggled to maintain its budget after property tax caps and a new funding formula went into place. They will end transportation services in 2018 and get rid of 37 positions this summer. (photo credit: Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana)

Muncie Community Schools will reduce their staff by 37 positions by next school year, through retirements, resignations and a few layoffs. The reduction comes after years of financial struggles for the district.

Superintendent Steven Baule said the district lost around $29 million after property tax caps and the new school funding formula.

Last year, the school board voted to end bus transportation by 2018 because of a protected tax law that diverted the district’s funds away from transportation.

The latest budget issues will affect staff, including teachers. Bale said he hopes to lay off fewer than 10 teachers, after they find out who is retiring and resigning – positions he will not replace.

Baule said the district can save money by replacing interventionists, staff who pull kids out of class to work on specific skills, with people who aren’t certified teachers. He said these employees are supplementing the child’s education so they don’t need to be certified, even though they would prefer it.

“That’s no different in what you see in healthcare today,” Baule said. “You don’t see the doctor all the time, you might see a physician’s assistant or you might see a nurse practitioner, it’s the exact same concept.”

Baule blames recent policy changes on the financial situation in his district, but some legislators don’t agree.

“Property tax caps should have had little impact on that funding stream,” said Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Behring said the legislature took measures to protect schools, when they put the property tax caps in place in 2008, through the state’s school funding formula.

This formula, updated during the 2015 legislative session, allocates money to students, not districts. So districts that draw more students, get more money. But districts like Muncie, which are seeing declining enrollment numbers, do not have that protection.

Behning said that is only fair since a district that is losing kids doesn’t need the same amount of resources to educate fewer students. And he said districts can also levy tax referenda to increase property taxes.

But Baule said the state should be able to help out more.

“If the state doesn’t change how it funds education, it’s really making a statement that they don’t feel public education has value,” Baule said.

Frankfort’s English Learner Teachers Scramble For Resources

Frankfort teacher Anne Lanum works with English learner students.

Frankfort teacher Anne Lanum works with English learner students. Photo by Claire McInerny

The English learner population is growing across the Midwest, as more immigrants settle in smaller towns, and Indiana is currently seeing an increase of students needing to learn English at a higher rate than the rest of the country.

While most schools struggle to meet the needs of students who don’t speak English, this challenge is especially obvious in rural school districts, where enrollment is decreasing and resources are tight.

Madeline Mavrogordato, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, conducts research on English learners. She said rural districts do struggle, but they can also adapt more quickly than large districts.

Melissa Griggs, on parent involvement

“So I think one of the things that’s amazing about working in a school district like that, is they tend to be smaller to begin with. So the power you have to actually impact change in a district like that is incredible,” Mavrogordato said.

In Indiana, the rural district Community Schools of Frankfort is also the district with the highest percentage of English learners in the state. Its need for English learner resources is also one of the highest in the state, and it is an example of how many schools are struggling to keep up with the growth of English learners.

Changing Attitudes To Effectively Teach

Frankfort is a small town in central Indiana with a little more than 16,000 people. Over the last few decades, as more factory jobs became available, more Latino families moved there.

Anne Lanum started as a elementary school teacher in the Frankfort school district, 16 years ago. Over that time, the number of her students with English learning needs grew from 20 to 90 percent. In the beginning of this boom, Lanum says negative attitudes about the population change in the community reached the schools.

Olivia Rothenberger, on attitudes from administrators

“At that time they weren’t really accepted, people didn’t want them at the other schools,” Lanum said.

She said the community is more comfortable now. But she and other teachers said other challenges are harder to overcome, including the student to teacher ratio.

Frankfort has the largest percentage of English learning students in the state, 800 students in a small district. But it only has eight teachers, and that team said they’re always trying to catch up.

After seeing the negative attitudes toward Latino students, Lanum decided two years ago to get her English learner certification and switch jobs. She’s now one of those eight teachers split among the hundreds of kids needing her specified instruction.

She said it’s been a tough transition, because these students are not the district’s top priority. For example, Lanum meets with more than 200 kids at one elementary school, but she doesn’t have her own classroom.

“If there’s a room that has to go, it’s my room and I just have to find a space,” she said. “I have to find a breezeway or a corner to teach kids.”

Anne Lanum, on resources

Other teachers said they get pulled away from working with English learning students to proctor ISTEP+ exams or do lunch duty. And they all said the schools need more dedicated, certified EL teachers. But Frankfort’s Director of English Learning, Lori North, says that’s a tough ask right now.

“We had teacher cuts this year so it’s really hard for me to go and say ‘I need more EL teachers’ when they’re cutting general education teachers,” North said.

They all said the attitudes have gotten better in the community and in the schools toward these students. Principals and other administrators are starting to understand why English learning classes are important for these students to succeed in the rest of their classes.

“Everyone’s an English learner teacher”

The situation for the Frankfort schools is typical for most schools with high English learner populations.

Right now in Frankfort, there is typically one EL teacher per school that has hundreds of students needing their services. This one teacher spends the days helping classroom teachers co-teach, a combination of pull out sessions with small groups and large class sessions.

Teachers in Frankfort said this is not ideal because students aren’t getting enough uninterrupted, individual instruction.

Karie Cloe, on language barriers

Mavrogordato said that’s a common problem everywhere, and if schools that aren’t able to hire more English learner teachers want to better serve the kids there is a more plausible solution.

“If you’re lucky kids are going to get pulled out of class maybe two days, three days a week to receive services,” Mavrogordato said. “But the other six hours of the day across five days a week, they’re with general education teachers. So if the general education teachers have not received training or professional development to help them address the linguistic and cultural needs of English language learners, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

The teachers in Frankfort are trying to employ this tactic in their schools. Melissa Griggs is one the English learner teachers and also coaches classroom teachers on tactics to use in the classroom.

“So much is suffering because they’re not learning grade level content if they’re not learning the language,” Griggs said. “But I think that’s also where we do a great job of informing the teachers and giving them strategies on how to help too.”

And Griggs said, in a district where up to 50 percent of the class could not understand what the teacher is saying, every teacher becomes an English learning teacher.

“They Just Need Language”

For North, the most frustrating part of not having enough staff and training to help students learn English is that she knows that these students are smart.

Lori North, on stigma

The Community Schools of Frankfort received Ds on the state’s A-F system the last three years. English learners must take the ISTEP+, but they cannot have it translated. This means most English learners fail the test, and with a third of students in the district learning the language, ISTEP+ scores are often low.

North said the district doesn’t put pressure on her team to perform better, but the teachers are disappointed by this situation.

“I think we feel pressure in our own buildings because we feel tired of failing,” North said. “We’re tired of working so hard, but we don’t get the numbers.”

But once the English learners master the language, most are strong academically.

“They just need language,” North said. “Once they have language, in many ways, they outperform the general population.”

Because the school district is tight on money for everything, North said she can’t ask for too much for the English learners. She has grant money that she wants to use to get classroom teachers EL certified. She says if more teachers know how to help the kids, the better it is off everyone.

“They just deserve every opportunity they can give them,” North said. “I know my EL teachers work really hard to do that, but it never feels like enough. I think that’s what we feel like, we’re eight strong. Like we’re doing our best, we’re doing the very best we can but is that enough?”

Deadline Looms For ISTEP Panel To Design New Test

Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma separately announced appointments to the panel that will recommend a replacement for Indiana’s current standardized test, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus or ISTEP. (David Hartman /Flickr)

The panel that is re-writing the ISTEP+ met for the first time Tuesday. (David Hartman /Flickr)

The committee created by lawmakers to rewrite Indiana’s standardized assessment, the ISTEP, met for the first time Tuesday.

No decisions were made, yet it became clear to the educators, policymakers and lawmakers gathered that a vast amount of work lies ahead before their deadline just six months away.

One major decision is whether a single summative test or multiple interim assessments should be used to measure how much a student knows and learned from the previous year.

University of Kansas testing expert Marianne Perie told the panel before they even decide that, they need to agree on the purpose of the exam. Is it to identity achievement gaps and help students? Or provide instructional feedback to teachers and parents? Will lawmakers use it to compare schools to make policies? Could teachers be evaluated by a student’s score?

“What is the number one goal this assessment has to have?,” she said. “If this taskforce doesn’t agree on that. It won’t agree on anything else.”

Legislation passed this year requires the 23-member committee to report its recommendations for a new assessment by Dec. 1. The report is supposed to guide lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session on approving a new assessment - one that could be built from scratch just for Indiana or be a so-called “off-the-shelf” model used by other states.

Testing company Pearson is under contract with Indiana to give the current ISTEP in 2017. The new assessment, as approved by the committee, is go into effect in spring 2018.

But the looming deadline is already causing state Rep. Bob Behning to suggest tweaking the law that repealed ISTEP to allow its use for one or two more years.

“There’s probably a pretty good chance that we will extend the contract with Pearson for another year or two, until we get what we want, to do it right,” he said after leaving the committee meeting.

Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the timeline to design the assessments will become more clear after the committee decides on key factors — such as the purpose and then the type.

“There will be a conversation of what assessments we do want, and can we achieve the (third grade) I-READ information in the new system,” she said.

Whether social students is part of the ISTEP could also be discussed, Ritz said, since an assessment of subject is no longer required by federal policy.

“The cool thing about this whole operation is we really get to design the whole system,” she said.

Tuesday’s meeting was mostly a summary of the types of testing, the current state of Indiana’s assessments, including ISTEP and the third grade reading test know as I-READ, and a review of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, that replaced No Child Left Behind.

The panel’s recommendation on the new assessment system is due Dec. 1. The next meeting date has not been released.

Gary Community Schools Still Faces Budget Woes


Gary Community Schools continue to struggle financially to pay teachers and keep buildings open. (photo credit: Rachel Morello/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

As Gary Community Schools grapples with a $75 million budget deficit, hard decisions have come to a head. Recently, the Gary School Board members laid off 13 employees and said they will explore running their own transportation system, in order to cut costs.

For the school district in the northwest Indiana city, budget woes are nothing new.

At the beginning of the school year, we visited Gary Community Schools to see how the financial and academic struggles of the district were affecting learning — and how district officials are optimistic the schools can survive.

The series, Community of Opportunity, explored the community and district at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. On-the-ground and in-the-schools, reporter Rachel Morello laid out the following issues:

The Gary Community School Corporation does need to get better. Student test scores are low, schools are closing. The district is in debt to the tune of roughly $20 million dollars. In addition, the growth of the state’s voucher program and proliferation of the charter school movement have hit the public school district hard. At one time, Gary had a greater percentage of charter schools than any other district in the nation. District leaders estimate about 3,000 kids have left GCSC for other local schools in the past two or three years. To top it all off, many of the statewide policies put in place in Indianapolis in recent years don’t play out so favorably for Gary. The General Assembly approved a new school funding formula that will short GCSC $9 million over the next two years.

School staff and community members expressed hope the schools, and the community in Gary, could turn around to overcome these woes. Continue Reading

Indiana Lawmakers Differ Over Federal Transgender Guidelines

The White House released guidance to public schools saying they must allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. (Pixabay)

Some Indiana lawmakers are pushing back against the White House guidance that public schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. (Pixabay)

The Obama administration guidelines that say schools must allow transgender students equal access to bathrooms has come under fire in a federal bill proposed by an Indiana congressman.

Indiana Rep. Luke Messer, R-6th Districts, introduced federal legislation Wednesday that would block the Obama administration directive. He says rules regarding bathroom access should originate locally.

“It’s irresponsible for the Obama Administration to begin this social experiment in the bathrooms of our nation’s elementary schools,” said Messer, in a statement. “Decisions of this magnitude should be made at the state and local level by people who will put the interest of our kids ahead of political ideology.”

But across Indiana, lawmakers search for answers of their own. For state Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, the idea of transgender students is nothing new.

“People have been able to deal with it and they can deal with it,” said Delaney, in a phone interview.

He says Messer’s bill, and similar backlash against transgender students’ rights, are “unnecessary.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot or people trying to encourage people to masquerade in restrooms,” said Delaney. “We’re creating a lot of fear when there’s no reason for any fear.”

Other lawmakers like state senator Travis Holdman, R-Markle, agree with Messer that decisions should be made locally.

“Whoever owns the bathroom sets the rules for the bathroom,” said Holdman. “The last place we need the government intruding is in our toilets, OK?”

Holdman sponsored legislation last year that would require transgender people to live as their preferred gender identity for a year or produce evidence, like a doctor’s note, that he or she is actually transgender, before filing a discrimination complaint.

“The last place we need the government intruding is in our toilets, OK?”

“We’d like to be able to accept the word of students but we know that students are up to a little bit of chaos sometimes,” said Holdman.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz applauded the Obama administration’s measures last week. Officials from Indianapolis Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, said they believe the administration’s guidelines “echoed” their own beliefs.

But Holdman is not the only state lawmaker that disagrees with Ritz and IPS officials.

“These new federal guidelines concerning the use of school restrooms and locker rooms is another example of extreme overreach by the Obama administration,” said House Speaker Brian C. Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “I fully support Congressman Luke Messer’s move to block these rules and keep these decisions at the state and local level where they belong.”

Other national Indiana figures have chimed in too. Lauren Beebe, a spokesperson for Indiana Rep. Todd Young, R-9th District, said he believes decisions at local schools should be made by local leaders, not the federal government.

“In the past he’s opposed heavy-handed federal mandates on the states,” said Beebe, in an email.

Senator Dan Coats, R-Indiana, also criticized the new guidelines.

“This announcement violates the Constitution and is based on politics, not what is best for our students,” said Coats, in a statement. “Washington bureaucrats do not have the authority to dictate restroom policies at Indiana schools.”

Coats was among a group of 25 senators who sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and U.S. Secretary of Education John King decrying the directive.

Study: Black Students More Likely Seen As Gifted By Black Teachers

A new study says a teacher's race  influences whether black students are placed in gifted programs, like honors classes. (Pexels) A new study says a teacher’s race influences whether black students are placed in gifted programs, like honors classes. (Pexels)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Black teachers are three times more likely than white teachers to identify black children as gifted, according to new research.

A study published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory says a teacher’s race influences whether black students are placed in gifted programs, like honors classes.

Researchers say this may stem from cultural perceptions.

“Expressions of learning are different in some ways,” said Jill Nicholson-Crotty, an Indiana University professor and study author. “And if you grew up similarly, you’re going to recognize those.”

According to the study, black teachers’ perceptions of black students are more positive than white teachers perceptions —  and these perceptions drive assignment differences.

While gifted education programs may admit students based on IQ tests or other measures of ability, it’s often up to teachers to choose which students get evaluated in the first place.

Nicholson-Crotty said teachers usually determine that based on key questions.

“Are they kids that dig deeply into prolems? Are they problem solving in ways that are far advanced of their age group?,” said Nicholson-Crotty.

She says the data points to one thing.

“Black teachers are better at spotting these skills and these traits in black students,” said Nicholson-Crotty.

‘We Really Need More Diversity In Schools’

Nicholson-Crotty and other researchers analyzed a national sampling of student data. They looked at students referred to various gifted programs by third- and fourth-grades.

The results suggest that black teachers are more likely than white teachers to see black students as gifted — and not that students or their parents are doing anything differently.

For instance, the study found that black students didn’t perform better on standardized tests or other cognitive measures if they have black teachers. Nor that parents of black students were any more likely to engage with black teachers or lobby that their children be in honors classes.

“One of the takewaways from this for us is that we really need more diversity in schools because then you increase the likelihood of a black student having a black teacher in these sort of K, one, two, three grades,” said Nicholson-Crotty. “It might be very important for that to happen.

Real Life Effects

The study could explain an all-too-evident practice in my Rochester, NY high school.

The inner-city public high school‘s student body was pretty diverse. But walk into one of the school’s honors classes, and you wouldn’t necessarily know it.

Currently, about three-quarters of the student body is black Latino and about one-quarter white, according to state data.

But almost the complete inverse was true in our school’s honors and AP classes. In these classes sat kids who came up through elementary and middle school programs for gifted students. And, in a school of mostly black and Latino students, these honors classes were overwhelmingly white.

And that trend isn’t isolated.

Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of high school students, but only 27 percent of students enrolled in at least one AP course, according to the Education Department.

This comes at a time when students of color have become a majority in public schools, yet more than 80 percent of teachers are white.

National Scholarship Targets Undocumented Students In Indiana

Undocumented students from Indiana can apply for a scholarship to attend school at universities in Delaware and Connecticut. Indiana is one of many states that charge undocumented student out of state tuition, no matter how long they have lived in a state. (Photo Credit: chancadoodle/Flickr)

Undocumented students from Indiana can apply for a scholarship to attend school at universities in Delaware and Connecticut. Indiana is one of many states that charge undocumented student out of state tuition, no matter how long they have lived in a state. (Photo Credit: chancadoodle/Flickr)

A national scholarship foundation will offer a $20,000 a year scholarship to undocumented students in Indiana to attend college in Delaware or Connecticut. They say Indiana policy restricts college access for undocumented students.

According to the Indiana Latino Institute, there are an estimated 300-400 undocumented students that graduate from Indiana high schools each year. Marlene Dotson, president of the Indiana Latino Institute, says these students face a lot of challenges if they want to attend college.

“There are very few options,” Dotson says. “First because they don’t qualify for federal aid because of their legal status. Undocumented students have to look for private scholarships to help their financial needs or tuition.”

TheDream.US is a privately funded scholarship organization that helps undocumented students fund their college education. This specific scholarship will give 500 students in 15 states $20,000 a year to attend Eastern Connecticut State or Delaware State universities – where these students can cover the cost of attending with the entire scholarship. Continue Reading

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