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.