Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

The Future Of State Interventions In Struggling Indiana Schools

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

State superintendent Tony Bennett (left) addresses an audience of more than 120 people at John Marshall Community High School in Indianapolis before a public hearing on a possible state intervention began in August. State officials ultimately decided against the outright takeover of John Marshall.

State-led takeovers of five schools with a history of low test scores in Indianapolis and Gary helped define Tony Bennett‘s four years as state superintendent.

But while these interventions grabbed the most headlines, Bennett’s teams also identified and intervened in roughly 280 struggling schools across the state.

While the Indiana Department of Education’s Office of School Improvement and Turnaround offered support and encouragement, it also reminded local educators of what was at stake for schools where test scores remained low: after six straight F’s under Indiana’s school rating system, the state can take the school over.

Now, state superintendent-elect Glenda Ritz is preparing to assume some responsibility for helping these schools. She says she’s “a no-nonsense person” who wants to see big changes in struggling schools.

“We shouldn’t be waiting for things to happen and then say ‘Okay, now I’m going to provide all the supports you need under a takeover,’” Ritz tells StateImpact. “I think it should happen all along. And if it does happen all along, we should never have a school that should even be at that level where they would be even considered to be at that level for a takeover.”

A ‘C’-Change At Washington

Under Bennett’s administration, one of the schools where state officials stepped in was George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis.

By August 2011, the school had received six consecutive years-worth of failing ratings under Indiana’s school letter grading system. Staff members gritted their teeth through tense moments last year when many wondered whether state officials would take over Washington, as they had done with four other schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

But to turn the school around, the state — and Washington’s staff — looked to student data.

Instead of taking control of the school, the state brought in a team from a company called Wireless Generation. Students took standardized, low-stakes tests every so often. Wireless Generation helped teachers dig into the data and figure out which students needed the most help before the bigger tests.

“Instead of waiting four weeks, hoping you taught it right, hoping the kids got it, then taking the big high-stakes test and then realizing nobody got what you wanted them to get; every week we just check real quick, ‘Are they getting the skills?’” says English teacher Deb Aquino.

This year, the school’s letter grade went up for the first time since 2005 — from an F to a C.

Washington’s staff says the improvement cannot all be attributed to Wireless Generation. The school benefits from the assistance of community partners and a grant funded with federal stimulus money.

As we reported in our first visit to Washington, most staff at George Washington Community High School were relieved not to be taken over and excited to work with Wireless Generation. They simply were uncomfortable with the label of a “failing” school.

But principal Teresa Ezell says the Wireless Generation team has been another, helpful set of eyes on the school’s performance numbers.

“It gives another perspective on how to improve the school,” Ezell says.

More Than ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’

Each intervention is different, says Jim Larson, who runs the state’s Office of School Improvement and Turnaround.

“If you’re just worrying about memorizing stuff to pass tests, that’s not getting them ready for life, that’s getting them ready to pass tests.”
—JoAnna Lane, Washington junior
“I will be the enemy, but I will also be the support,” he says of the state’s role in school improvement. He says he tells local school officials, “You need to tell me, based on your local context, what it is you need me to represent.”

The overall goal is to convey a sense of urgency to local school leaders.

Bennett once recounted a Fort Wayne school board member’s response to the state’s call for improvement. According to Bennett, he said, “‘We took a five year improvement plan and compressed it to one year, and Dr. Bennett, you said to blame you, and we did.’”

“You know what?” Bennett added. “That’s how accountability should work.”

The mantle for helping struggling schools improve will soon fall to Glenda Ritz, who says she wants to maintain the sense of urgency.

But Ritz says she will oppose outright state takeovers. She says it’s fundamentally wrong for public dollars to go to the private operator who would run a school. She also wants to make state intervention seem less punitive. She tells StateImpact:

I plan to have continuous work with the school districts to make sure we’re putting in place what’s necessary. I’m not naïve enough to think we can make it all go away in a year. But we need to see continuous improvement in areas to address the challenges, and some very frank conversations… If things aren’t in place in a school culture, then how are we going to get them in place? We need to have them there, they need to be continually talked about. We need to meet frequently. We need to have conversations with whomever we need to have conversations with in the community, because our schools do not operate on their own. They are microcosms of our community.

Too Test-Focused?

Washington junior JoAnna Lane frowns when she hears a mention of state intervention.  She wonders whether the school is paying attention to more than students’ test scores.

“If you’re just worrying about memorizing stuff to pass tests,” JoAnna says, “that’s not getting them ready for life, that’s getting them ready to pass tests.”

Maybe so, says senior Daniel Malvaez, who’s sitting next to JoAnna. He feels like he has good teachers, and that he’s getting what he needs to succeed.

“It only matters if you are getting your education, you as a student — are getting what you need to graduate and to be a successful person in life,” Malvaez says. “It shouldn’t really matter that much on the test scores, but I guess that’s how we’re evaluated here in IPS — on how we do as a school, and how good those test scores are.”


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