The big sort

Caught in the Upper West Side integration debate, educators at this middle school say test scores don’t tell the whole story

PHOTO: Mia Simring
An integration debate in District 3 has put schools like West Prep in the spotlight. Teachers and school leaders say their low test scores hide the progress many students make once they enroll there.

When Nicole Feliciano wrapped up a lesson this week on civil rights, she asked her eighth-graders at West Prep Academy to write down their questions about racism on multi-colored notecards. The social studies teacher was heartbroken when she came across one response in particular.

“What kind of person was that lady that talked about our school?” one student wanted to know.

The note seemed like an obvious reference to the viral news footage that has inflamed a present-day school integration debate on the Upper West Side. In the clip, a crowd of mostly white, middle-class parents protest a desegregation proposal that could mean their children are elbowed out of the most sought-after schools in District 3. One particularly angry mother said the plan was akin to telling hard-working students, “You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”

The footage doesn’t directly mention West Prep, a tiny school on the cusp of Harlem where most students are black, Hispanic, and poor. But the implication was clear to parents, teachers, and school leaders there: Schools like theirs would not be acceptable to parents like those.

“You hear these things about our school, and that we’re a bad school — at the end of the day, you’re talking about the children who are here,” Feliciano said. “And there’s nothing bad about our students.”

The superintendent in District 3 has proposed to offer a quarter of seats at every middle school to students who earn low scores on state tests. Since test scores are tightly linked to race and class — 84 percent of the district’s lowest-scoring students are black or Hispanic — the plan could integrate schools racially, financially and academically.

The plan is still being debated so the outlines could change. As it stands, the proposal has plenty of backers. But it has also faced pushback from parents who worry that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — will no longer guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

Those parents have largely shunned schools like West Prep, clamoring instead for just a handful of others that reliably feed students into the city’s most competitive high schools. Compared to those schools, West Prep has much lower test scores and therefore doesn’t have a track record of sending students to in-demand high schools.

As far as Principal Carland Washington is concerned, those statistics don’t paint a full picture of what’s going on at West Prep. He acknowledges the school has challenges, but says the staff has been set up for those challenges through an admissions process that filters students into two tiers of schools: those that almost exclusively enroll top scorers, and those that enroll everybody else.

“I would much rather everybody call it for what it is: This is a school for the students who are lower performing because we took all the other ones, and put them somewhere else,” he said. “We serve whoever shows up at the front door.”

There’s no getting around it — West Prep’s scores are far lower than more competitive middle schools. Only a third of West Prep students passed state English tests in 2017, compared with 60 percent across the district. In math, 13 percent of students passed, compared with 54 percent districtwide.

Their unimpressive test scores, though, don’t show the progress many West Prep students have made since arriving there. Washington said about 90 percent of students start sixth grade already behind grade level. City data shows that 43 percent of students who entered West Prep with low test scores improved their performance on state math tests — about double the results of schools with similarly needy students. In English, 83 percent of students showed progress, compared to 53 percent.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘Well, they didn’t work hard. And my kid did.’ That kind of stuff, it really breaks my heart,” said Cidalia Costa, who helps recruit for the school. “Because we see our kids, and we see our parents, and we see them working hard. And they’re more than just a number that we attach to them.”

That’s why, when a recent New York Times story referred to West Prep by little more than its test scores, Feliciano dashed off a four-page defense of the school where she has taught for about six years. She is the social studies department chair and proud of her national board certification, which hangs on her classroom wall along with her degrees.

A main question from concerned parents is whether schools like West Prep can serve students with a range of academic abilities well in the same classroom. Feliciano says that’s already happening.

In her eighth grade social studies class, Feliciano is using a high school curriculum to teach students about the Little Rock Nine, who integrated an Arkansas high school back in 1957. The class moves briskly, with a large red countdown clock constantly buzzing: There are three minutes to brainstorm definitions of racism, another three minutes to write examples of how it remains embedded in society, and five minutes for students to discuss their ideas with each other. The students don’t need to be coaxed to raise their hands or contribute.

“Isn’t racism based on fear?” one student asked. “It’s, like, the fear of the unknown.”

Some of the students in Feliciano’s class are strong test takers and perform on grade level. Others have been placed there after showing enough progress in isolated special education programs to join their peers in a mainstream classroom. Everyone is learning the same content, but with little tweaks built into each lesson to help push the struggling students along. She may flash a checklist of instructions on the electronic board to help them stay on task, or give some a chart to organize their work while others tackle assignments independently.

“We’re not just showing up here, babysitting kids, and watering down the curriculum, and teaching the alphabet and phonics,” Washington said.

School staff say it’s unfair to divorce student performance from the way students are sorted into middle school. In District 3, there are no attendance zones assigned by address. Instead, families apply to the schools of their choice. Most middle schools in District 3 are screened, meaning they admit students based on factors such as test scores, attendance, or even a personal interview. West Prep is one of the few schools that is unscreened, meaning it accepts anyone who applies.

Every year, West Prep puts on a show at middle school fairs, where parents come to learn about their options. Costa brings fistsful of balloons and hauls in computer screens that flash the school’s selling points: It’s small and offers a full marching band, performing arts program, and Regents coursework to give students a headstart on their high school classes and credit towards graduation. And because many of its students come from poor families, it does this on a shoestring budget compared to schools that have powerhouse parent organizations — like Booker T. Washington, which raised about $600,000 last year, according to tax forms.

Costa sees that the district’s most selective middle schools don’t have to put nearly as much effort into recruitment. West End Secondary School, one of the district’s most sought-after, had almost 600 applications last year for about 70 seats. West Prep could take in 100 more students, if only they would come. The school serves about 200 students, taking up two hallways in a building shared with a pre-K and elementary school.

“It’s really hard to change or shape people’s hearts and minds when we have a population that’s really, very needy,” she said. “It just seems like we had the cards stacked up against us.”

Despite all the controversy, the District 3 proposal is not likely to change much for West Prep or most of the other local middle schools. A simulation of admissions offers, based on last year’s application data, shows that West Prep would admit three more students who passed state tests. Most of its new students, 74 percent, would still come with low test scores. Similarly modest changes are expected across the District, with most high-scoring students still packed into just a few schools.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, said Shamel Flowers, whose son is in seventh grade at West Prep. Overwhelmed by the middle school application process, Flowers settled on West Prep almost immediately after the principal welcomed her for a tour. She was looking for a place that would challenge her son academically, but also support him during what can be a tough transition in adolescence.

Since the debate has unfolded in District 3, Flowers said her son has come to her with questions.

“He’s wondered if this is a race issue. He’s wondered is it a class issue,” she said.

This year, 88 percent of District 3 students with top scores on state tests got one of their top three middle school choices. That was true for students with the lowest scores only 55 percent of the time. Taking the first step towards giving students more options would send a powerful message, Flowers said.

“Every child should have the right to choose a school where they want to be and that school should be open to having them,” Flowers said. “We need to break down the wall that’s there.”

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response:

Future of Schools

Short on students, 3 Indianapolis charter schools are closing. But 6 more will open in the fall

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Three Indianapolis charter schools facing financial struggles will close at the end of this school year, underscoring just how difficult it can be for charter schools to create sustainable operations.

As another sign of charter schools’ cash crunch, particularly in the city’s increasingly competitive school choice market, longtime Indianapolis charter network Tindley will merge its all-boys and all-girls middle schools into a single coeducational location.

Still, even as some schools close and consolidate, six more charter schools are poised to open in Indianapolis for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — including two that will be tasked with “restarting” schools within Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation schools.

In many parts of the city, the proliferation of charter schools is pushing the school choice conversation beyond simply providing more options to focusing on the quality of those options.

According to state data, nearly 17,000 students who live in Marion County — almost 11 percent — attend charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Across the state, charter schools are the fastest-growing school option, though they mostly serve urban areas.

Read more: How are Indiana charter schools doing? 9 things to know from the state’s first study

CLOSING: CARPE DIEM NORTHWEST

Among those shuttering schools are two that focused on blended learning. Carpe Diem Northwest, the national chain’s only remaining campus in the city, will shut its doors, the state charter school board said.

According to the Indiana Charter School Board, Carpe Diem’s board voted to close the school in March. The school’s principal and board president did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.

According to state data, 218 students were enrolled at Carpe Diem Northwest this year in grades 6-12 — an uptick likely due to the chain merging its former three campuses into one location. Consolidation efforts started in 2016, when Carpe Diem closed its Shadeland campus amid low enrollment. The chain’s Meridian Street campus lost its charter last year after struggling with academic problems, low enrollment, and financial instability.

CLOSING: NEXUS ACADEMY

Nexus Academy, which shared a building with the Glendale library branch, will also close this summer after a drawn-out attempt to stay open as curriculum providers pulled out of the school.

The school used blended learning to serve students who sought an alternative school environment, such as students with disabilities, students who didn’t succeed in conventional classroom settings, or students pursuing professional athletics or acting.

Nexus Academy had initially announced it would be closing at the end of the last school year, said board president Debra Morgan, when online K-12 management company Connections decided to close all of its Nexus Academy locations across three states.

But local leaders in Indianapolis wanted to keep the school open, so they began searching for a new management company. They were able to arrange a trilateral agreement with Connections and a new provider, California-based iLEAD Schools.

Still, Nexus Academy principal Jamie Brady said, “It was at the 13th hour, and it was too little, too late.”

Students had found other schools, and teachers had found other jobs. Marketing efforts to increase enrollment fell short, Brady said, and the school re-opened late in the year with too few students.

Earlier this spring, state charter officials deferred renewing Nexus Academy’s expiring charter. But before the school could return to make its case again, Brady and Morgan said iLEAD Schools also decided it could not help Nexus Academy, leading the school of about 25 students to close.

CLOSING: INDIANA COLLEGE PREP

A third school, the highly troubled Indiana College Preparatory School, will close after the mayor’s office ordered the school to shut down. The company running the school had stopped communicating with the mayor’s office, and the entire school board had resigned.

Read more: In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

CLOSING: HOOSIER ACADEMY VIRTUAL

Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, a statewide full-time virtual charter school that enrolls students from Indianapolis, is also closing after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Read more: After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June

CONSOLIDATING: TINDLEY MIDDLE SCHOOLS

Among Tindley’s local chain of six schools, its two middle schools will drop their single-gender programming to merge into one co-educational school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said the decision was in part financial, driven by declining enrollment. As charter school competition has increased, she said it was harder to attract students to the all-girls Tindley Collegiate Academy and all-boys Tindley Preparatory Academy.

Families also said the bridge into high school was more difficult for students who went to single-gender middle schools, Marshall said.

The merged middle schools will operate under the Tindley Collegiate name and use Tindley Prep’s building, next door to Tindley Renaissance, its feeder elementary school.

OPENING: ALLEGIANT PREP AND VANGUARD

A pair of charter schools will open on Indianapolis’ westside to focus on students in the Haughville area, each school founded by Building Excellent Schools fellows.

Allegiant Preparatory Academy will grow into a K-8 college preparatory school with a particular focus on literacy, led by Indianapolis native Rick Anderson. The first week of school will be devoted to teaching students about Allegiant’s culture and core values. Students will begin making college visits in kindergarten and first grade, and the school will also work with families on how to support students on their paths to college.

Allegiant is built upon the motto that “it takes a village” to ensure students’ successes.

“We’re all saying that we have our hands on the shoulder of this child, and we are going to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re learning, and that they’re also growing as leaders,” Anderson said.

At Vanguard Collegiate of Indianapolis, school founder Rob Marshall — also an Indianapolis native — wants to incorporate the school with the Haughville neighborhood, with students completing service learning and projects based on the needs of the community.

The school, located in the former IPS School 75 building, is specifically seeking to help low-income students who live nearby, and Marshall said his leadership team is intentionally composed of people coming from backgrounds similar to their students.

“We know these students can achieve,” he said. “They just need the right adult that understands the circumstances and is willing to build the relationships.”

Vanguard will be “unapologetically” college prep-focused, Marshall added, with mandatory tutoring at the end of school that helps students with whatever they may have struggled with in that day’s lessons.

Both schools say they expect to ramp up enrollment efforts this summer.

OPENING: PILOTED SCHOOLS

PilotED started as after-school programs in Chicago, and now it’s turning into a new school in Fountain Square, in the former home of Indiana Math and Science Academy South and IPS School 64.

PilotED is focused on social identity, asking both teachers and students to examine difficult questions about power and privilege. The school incorporates social justice and racial equity into academics.

School co-founder and The Mind Trust fellow Jacob Allen said he hopes the model does more than prepare students academically for college — he wants it to position students to persist and graduate, particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Allen also said the school wants to pay attention to teacher development and perks, including providing a mental health stipend, a staff gym, and co-working space.

OPENING: PARAMOUNT’S SECOND CAMPUS

Paramount School of Excellence is expanding to a second location about two miles away from its flagship eastside campus. Paramount Community Heights will serve students in grades K-4.

TURNAROUND: MATCHBOOK LEARNING

Matchbook Learning, a turnaround operator with a troubled history, will restart IPS School 63 on the westside as an innovation school. The charter school uses software to help teachers track students’ progress, a model that Matchbook founder and The Mind Trust fellow Sajan George hopes will lead to dramatic test score gains.

Read more: Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

TURNAROUND: URBAN ACT ACADEMY

URBAN ACT, led by The Mind Trust fellow Nigena Livingston, will restart IPS School 14, a downtown school that has long served many students who are homeless. She plans to use “place-based learning,” a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

Read more: Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up