State gets ready for take-over of low-performing schools

Twenty-three Indiana schools could be facing take-over by private management companies or other school turnaround agents under a rule that the State Board of Education is set to adopt Dec. 1.

That sounds like strong medicine, and it has stirred up some controversy in Indiana education circles. But Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett says it’s one of the prescriptions that the state legislature included in Indiana’s school accountability law, known as Public Law 221.

The law, passed in 1999, says an option for persistently low-achieving schools is “assigning a special management team to operate all or part of the school.” Other options include closing the schools and merging them with other schools, a DOE memo explains.

Schools can be considered for take-over if they have been in the lowest category of achievement and improvement – until recently called called academic probation – for six consecutive years.

“The state can no longer afford to turn a blind eye,” Bennett said in a message to school employees. “Instead, the state owes it to the students to try to turn around these schools. The state has a legal obligation to demand change, and where necessary, compel it. Allowing schools endless attempts at improving in light of their history of failure is not a viable option for Indiana’s children.”

Twenty-three schools have been in the lowest PL 221 category for five straight years and will be eligible for take-over if they don’t improve in ratings that will be released soon. They enroll about 22,000 students, and a majority are urban high schools.

Eight are in the Indianapolis Public Schools district: Arlington, Broad Ripple, Manual, Northwest, Howe and Washington high schools and Emma Donnan and Willard J. Gambold middle schools. Others include:

— North Side and South Side high schools in Fort Wayne
— Paul Harding High School, Prince Chapman Academy and Village Elementary School in East Allen County Schools
— Marion High School
— Calumet High School
— East Chicago Central High School
— Central Elementary School in Lake Station Community Schools
— Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary
— Hammond and Morton high schools in Hammond
— Riley and Washington high schools and Bendix School in South Bend

The Department of Education last summer awarded school improvement grants to three of the schools — Indianapolis Washington, Hammond and Bendix — possibly a sign that they will be allowed to attempt transformation on their own rather than being taken over by a school management team.

But it’s also clear the Department of Education intends to use the take-over approach for some of the schools. The DOE memo says the department will be issuing a request for proposals “to identify qualified and interested organizations” in the next few weeks.

The proposed take-over rule came in for criticism at an Oct. 29 Board of Education hearing, where Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White urged the Department of Education to let IPS craft its own improvement measures for the schools.

Bennett accused critics of using “scare tactics” and argued that management teams hired under the take-over rule “could be considered no different than other consultants districts throughout the state already employ for various purposes.”

That seems like a stretch. When schools employ consultants, they don’t typically come in and run the school as if it were a charter school, hire their own teachers and exempt them from collective bargaining, which is what the rule sets up for school management organizations. The rule also says that state funding that had been going to the school corporation can be diverted to the management organization.

Even if this approach makes sense as a last-ditch attempt to help kids who have been failed by their schools, the devil will be in the details — in this case, the details of the agreement between the DOE and the management companies or organizations selected by the state.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education is about to release school placement categories under PL 221 based on spring 2010 ISTEP-Plus scores. In a change from previous years, schools and corporations will get letter grades – A, B, C, D or F – rather than being placed in descriptive categories like “exemplary,” “commendable” and “probation.”

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