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

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

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.