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. Continue reading

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A year at an urban middle school: Not much cause for hope

Anyone interested in urban schools and education reform should read Robert King’s account of a year at Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis – not because it provides answers, but because it shows that answers won’t be easy.

Writing in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, King describes a school where students struggle every day against overwhelming odds, including extreme poverty, neglectful parents, violence, sexual abuse, mental illness and homelessness.

Part of the Indianapolis Public Schools system, Emma Donnan started the school year on an optimistic note: It had a new, energetic principal, Brian Burke, and two-thirds of the teachers were new. Then Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced that the school was being taken over by the state and would be run, starting in 2012-13, by Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

The news seemed to throw the school into a tailspin, with Burke possibly looking ahead to opening a new IPS magnet school and teachers worried about their jobs. “Whatever the reason, Emma Donnan went through a rough patch that lasted six months,” King writes.

Let’s hope that CPUSA turns Emma Donnan into a great school. But the Star story makes clear that this kind of “school turnaround,” even if eventually successful, isn’t without its costs. Continue reading

Indiana charter school proposals: local issues and national expansions

Most of the initial proposals for new charter schools being considered this month by the new Indiana Charter School Board fall into one of two categories.

One the one hand, there are groups of Indiana residents who have decided to create a charter school as an end-run around local school board decisions or practices. On the other, ambitious and politically connected school operators are seeking to expand into Indiana.

The state charter school board, established by the legislature this year as part of an effort to expand the number of charter schools in Indiana, will conduct public hearings this week and next week on the proposals for nine new schools.

In the first category are Canaan Community Academy, Central Indiana Academy and Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy. In the second are BASIS Indianapolis, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, STEAM Academy of Hammond and East and South Indianapolis Charter Academies.

The ninth proposal, for Anderson Excel Academy, designed by Goodwill Industries primarily for students with disabilities, doesn’t seem to fit in either group.

Canaan Community Academy is being organized by teachers and parents in a small town in southeastern Indiana where the local elementary school was closed by the Madison Consolidated Schools board. Continue reading

Taking the pulse of a turnaround/takeover at an urban middle school

Indianapolis Star reporter Robert King and photographer Kelly Wilkinson should have a great time with a project that has them spending this academic year at Emma Donnan Middle School.

Not only is the school being turned around by the Indianapolis Public Schools system – it’s also being taken over by the Indiana Department of Education and turned over to Charter Schools USA, a politically connected, for-profit education business based in Florida.

As if hanging out for a year with a bunch of 14-year-olds weren’t stimulating enough …

Emma Donnan is one of five under-performing schools that the State Board of Education, acting on the recommendation of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, decided this week to place under the control of “turnaround school operators.” The others are IPS Manual and Howe high schools, also being turned over to Charter Schools USA; IPS Arlington High School, which will be run by charter operator EdPower; and Gary Roosevelt Academy, which goes to EdisonLearning.

IPS, meanwhile, is going to court to challenge the takeover of Howe and Arlington and the assignment of “lead partners” to Broad Ripple and Washington high schools, all four of which were recently been converted to “community high schools” serving students in grades 6-12. IPS Superintendent Eugene White argues that the Department of Education inappropriately included test scores from middle-grades students who were new to the schools when it awarded them Fs this year in the state’s PL 221 accountability system, triggering the state takeover.

But back to Emma Donnan Middle School and its seventh- and eighth-graders.

As King reports, IPS is doing what you’re supposed to do to turn the school around. It brought in a new principal, Brian Burke, and gave him the authority to remake the school. He got rid of two-thirds of the staff, replacing them with teachers who were selected in part for being passionate and caring about children.

Those teachers now will spend the year preparing to turn the school over to Charter Schools USA.

There’s a very real possibility that, after knocking themselves out to help a challenging group — more than 80 percent of Donnan students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a quarter are in special education and over 10 percent speak a primary language other than English – these teachers will be shown the door.

And Charter Schools USA will take credit for the progress that they made.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Star, state board member Neil Pickett suggested Monday that maybe the new principal and teachers should keep their jobs if Emma Donnan makes significant progress this year. But Richard Page, Charter Schools USA’s vice president for development, said the company typically replaces school leadership and most of the staff when it takes control of a school.

The Star’s series on Emma Donnan has so far set the stage. First of all, an urban middle school is a different creature than IPS School 61 kindergarten, where King produced a compelling series of stories in 2010-11. Next, King profiled several of the new Emma Donnan teachers: the committed, enthusiastic Teach for America recruits; the seasoned veteran ready for a new challenge.

But will commitment, enthusiasm and caring make a difference? Are the Emma Donnan teachers working together to continually assess every student’s progress and make sure none is falling behind? What are school administrators doing to ensure a safe, supportive environment where learning can take place? Are parents encouraged to celebrate their children’s success?

What does principal Brian Burke’s formula of “a firm hand with discipline, daily remediation for struggling students and ongoing training for the staff” look like in practice?

Equally compelling is the question of how the teachers – and the students — will respond as Charter Schools USA gets ready to take over and implement its own educational model.

There may be no better place for enterprising journalists like King and Wilkinson to spend the 2011-12 school year. But for students and teachers? Well, we’ll be reading about that.

Prospective Indiana ‘turnaround operator’ plays politics in Florida

Just as the Indiana State Board of Education is about to decide whether to turn over under-achieving schools to Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based school operator is under fire in its home state.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Rep. Dwight Bullard, the ranking Democrat on the Florida House Education Committee, is calling for a state investigation regarding a rally that Charter Schools USA helped stage recently in Orlando.

The for-profit company, which manages 25 Florida charter schools, bused 2,000 teachers, administrators and staff from across the state to the charter-schools rally. Speakers included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Bullard objected that the company appeared to be using taxpayer money to promote a political agenda. A spokesperson for Charter Schools USA said the expenses were paid by the company and didn’t come from the publicly funded budgets of charter schools. But she declined to reveal the cost.

Officials with Florida public school districts said there’s no way, given current funding cuts, that they could afford to bus teachers to a political rally. And imagine the outrage from Republicans and self-styled taxpayer advocates if they did. For certain, they wouldn’t be able to hide what they were spending on such an event the way Charter Schools USA could.

Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, is an old hand at Republican politics. He was a speechwriter for the first President George Bush, worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, and served (with Rhee) on Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team.

Three months ago, Charter Schools USA bused students from some of its charter schools to a budget-signing ceremony and political rally for Scott. “Now, other public schools have all kinds of policies about not participating in political activities, so I guess this is another one of the freedoms that have been granted to taxpayer-financed charter schools,” the Sentinel’s Dave Weber wrote on the newspaper’s education blog, Sentinel School Zone.

A Charter Schools USA representative said the governor invited the students, and they attended to learn about the political process. The lesson for the day, though, was about realpolitik – Democrats who tried to attend the rally were removed by sheriff’s deputies.

The news from Florida brings to mind the March 30 “education reform” rally staged in Indianapolis by a coalition of groups advocating charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay, etc. – also with Michelle Rhee as a featured speaker. The rally took place at mid-day on a Wednesday, but kids from charter schools and/or private schools were at the Statehouse to provide the visuals while Rhee and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett declared that the reform agenda is all about students.

Again, imagine the outrage if regular public schools gave their kids a day off to rally at the Statehouse for, say, raising state taxes to fund education or protecting collective bargaining for teachers.

Bennett will announce recommended interventions today for seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. One option: turning some or all of the schools over to turnaround operators – Charter Schools USA, EdisonLearning or Indianapolis-based EdPower. The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet Monday to decide which interventions to adopt.