Where did the students go?

Something is missing from the Indianapolis Star’s story on Sunday celebrating the “turnaround” success at the city’s Emma Donnan Middle School:

About 500 kids.

The story, headlined “The taming of a long-troubled school,” contrasts the relatively calm 2012-13 year with the reported chaos of previous years at the school. The state took over Emma Donnan from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 and turned its management over to Florida-based Charter Schools USA, designated a “turnaround school operator.”

“Over the past 10 months, CSUSA created an environment where once fearful students felt safe,” writes the Star’s Robert King. “And it brought back some of the things that define a school but had lone gone missing,” like a student council, yearbook and athletic teams.

King credits the new management, fewer students and “strong support for a group of young, idealistic teachers” as reasons for success. But you have to read deep into the story to learn we’re talking about a lot fewer students. Enrollment dropped from nearly 900 to fewer than 400 when CSUSA took over.

What happened to the other 500 students? How did the state-brokered turnaround help them? One student tells the Star: “The bad kids from last year, they weren’t here?” Where were they? Was their education being turned around?

Enrollment dropped at Emma Donnan, but funding didn’t. Thanks to former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the State Board of Education, the school’s state dollars for the second half of 2012 were based on what IPS would have received for a school with 850 students – even though Emma Donnan’s official enrollment was just 372.

Funding was adjusted downward in January 2013 as a result of the lower-than expected enrollment. But judging from CSUSA’s contacts with the state, the company was paid $12,600 per student to run Emma Donnan for the 2012-13 school year – at least 50 percent more than the per-pupil funding for IPS schools.

With that much extra money, it’s easy to imagine that small class sizes and additional “campus monitors” and other staff would go a long way to keeping order in the school.

If you read deeper into the story, you learn that the extra money and smaller classes may not have done a lot to improve student performance, however. It’s projected that fewer than 30 percent of students passed ISTEP-Plus exams, results of which are due in July.

And you learn that “the awkward aspects of a private company running what remains a public school also cropped up.” IPS gave King and a Star photographer free rein at Emma Donnan in 2011-12, but CSUSA “closed access to much of the inner workings.”

The 500 students who left Emma Donnan most likely scattered to other IPS schools or to charter or voucher schools, possibly because their parents were skeptical of the turnaround experiment. Whatever, they’re not the responsibility of Charter Schools USA.

And if Emma Donnan truly began to “turn around,” what really was the cause? Was it better management? More talented and idealistic teachers? Smaller school size? Or, as seems likely, more money and smaller classes? Is the lesson that states should intervene aggressively when public schools persistently fail to produce acceptable test scores? Or is it that we should dramatically increase funding for struggling schools?

The Emma Donnan story, so far, doesn’t provide the answers.

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4 thoughts on “Where did the students go?

  1. As a reporter, King should be asking tough questions.

    Instead he writes feel good stories about happy kids, hero teachers, and tough-minded administrators.

    It’s the job of the press to scrutinize institutions that receive public funding.

    Instead King leads the cheers and pitches softballs.

    The reader is left to wonder if King had formed his opinion beforehand and was just looking for material that agreed with it.

    In some circles, this might be called bias.

  2. The Indiana Dept of Educ should track all of these “missing” students, from Manual HS, Howe HS, Emma Donnan MS and others because, especially at the high school level if they do not enroll somewhere else they truly belong to no school and losing those students will never affect those high schools’ grad rates.

  3. And remember, the IN General Assembly bailed out Charter USA by saying they would not have to pay back that extra money, which the courts said they should repay, by budgeting the money back to the public school districts if they refused the repayment from Charter USA.

  4. This is precisely what I predicted would happen. Most or all of the poorly performing students, and the “bad” kids would be removed, or not re-enroll. This gives these schools the illusion of success and certainly will help the test scores–which is the only metric anyone cares about. The charter operators have padded their accounts with cash from the taxpayers. How did the takeover help struggling students?

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