Indiana Education Reform causes local concern, preparation
by André Smith
Education reform is causing the Indiana Department of Education and schools across the state to change how students are instructed to improve student and teacher performance.
The department of education currently uses Public Law 221 to determine grades for schools. According to the law, schools that receive an F on the grading scale for six consecutive years may be taken over by the state or have to engage in a partnership with a private company.
After complaints from school administrators saying this old plan was too tough and unfair, the department of education changed its school A to F grading system.
The new plan that will go in effect next school year will rate more high schools at A that were previously stuck with a C. Many schools found it hard to prove to the state that students who were ethnic minorities, from low-income families, and in special education made “adequate yearly progress.”
Changes are also taking place in the local level as four Indianapolis Public Schools will undergo a takeover with the old system— and two, Broad Ripple and George Washington Community High School, will engage in a partnership after both proved that they have made some improvements over the years.
IPS officials said schools like Broad Ripple should not be taken over because the state combined middle school and high school scores when determining which school to take over.
“If they looked at high schools separately, and if they looked at middle schools separately, the high schools were well above where they should have been,” Mary Busch, IPS school board president, said. “It was not until the state stepped in and combined the junior high scores and the high schools scores, did the scores go down.”
During the 2010-2011 school year, 46.8 percent of Broad Ripple’s students passed both their English and Math ISTEP tests, down from 58.4 percent the previous school year. Bennett said this decrease is what caused the department to decide intervention was necessary. Broad Ripple Principal Linda Davis said she believes the failing scores are due to student motivation, particularly in the younger students.
“When it comes to ISTEP, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders have been taking this dang test since they were in third grade, and it doesn’t mean anything to them,” Davis said. “It never has and it never has affected them in any way. The older students know they have to pass the End of Course Assessments, which is the high school equivalent to ISTEP tests, so they’re much more focused.”
IPS initially threatened to file a lawsuit against the department of education, with the school board voting 4-3 to sue if the takeovers took place, but decided against it.
“At first we talked about a lawsuit, but after our attorneys and our superintendent talked we just put our energies into doing a better job,” Busch said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said he used a lot of thought when deciding which schools will be taken over and that IPS officials knew the rules when they decided to add middle school grade levels to some of its high schools.
“The rules in place on how the state takes into consideration blended schools has been in existence for a long time,” Bennett said. “So when [IPS Superintendent Eugene] White and the IPS board made the decision to make those 7-12 buildings, Dr. White and the school board accepted the fact those schools would be considered using that blended method.”
Bennett said the state decided not to completely overtake two of the schools because they showed signs of improvement the others did not.
“What we saw in Broad Ripple and George Washington was the need for more targeted intervention,” Bennett said. “Instead of putting turnaround school operators in there, we said there are some really good things going on in George Washington and Broad Ripple. But here is what they need to take them from where they are to where they need to be.”
Bennett added that he believes the state did not move fast enough in the situation.
“Honestly, I don’t think we acted quick enough,” Bennett said. “I think we allowed six years of the erosion of the education system, and we allowed children to attend these schools that were failing for six years. So I think we should have acted quicker.”
Davis said she has some concerns about the partnership her school will take part in next year.
“It is worrying when you have someone looking over your shoulder and several people from the company will be here every day,” Davis said. “Dr. Bennett said if we do not collaborate with the company then they could possibly stay longer or we could be taken over. That is also worrying because it is kind of subjective to say someone is not collaborating enough.”
Bennett contended that the partnerships and takeovers would only stay in place until scores make improvements.
But many teachers say Broad Ripple already does a good job of educating its students.
“I think Broad Ripple has done an excellent job,” radio and acoustics teacher Vernon Williams said. “One of the unique things about Broad Ripple is the fact that it is a humanities magnet and it gives students the opportunity to do things that they love.”
Broad Ripple is a magnet school that focuses on the arts and humanities. The school was made into a magnet school two years ago in an effort to show the state that changes were made to help students. Teachers say the arts help students because they are allowed to focus on something they enjoy.
“We are really strong on the arts,” Rusnak said. “Most of the kids are wonderful artists and they do so much for the school. They are in theater. They are on athletic teams. A lot of our kids are involved and it really is like a community here. I think there are more positives at Broad Ripple High School than negatives, by far.”
After spending his freshman year at Arsenal Tech High School, Junior Christian Peek said he decided to come to Broad Ripple because of its arts program.
“I went to Tech my freshman year and I came here because of the performing arts,” Peek said. “I want to be a theatre music director when I grow up. And the training of our director is phenomenal and I heard how wonderful she is. I hesitated when I came here because it was so new of a school but when I came, I don’t regret it at all.”
Members from Scholastic Achievement Partners, the company that will be partnered with Broad Ripple, visited the school once and gave suggestions for improvement.
“Right now we are just sounding each other out and [company representatives are] trying to find where they think they can help,” Davis said.
One of the suggestions was for Broad Ripple’s teachers to engage in peer review sessions, where teachers meet to discuss lesson plans and new teaching methods. Many teachers say these sessions have been beneficial.
“They just want to help us improve, and offer resources, and allow teachers to observe other teachers which I think is definitely a good thing,” English teacher Katy Rusnak said.
Ultimately, teachers like Williams said that Broad Ripple faces the same problems all schools face but teachers have to change the way students think to make an impact.
“What’s lasting is the things that have to do with character, that have to do with resiliency, and more cognitive learning,” Williams said. “Those are the things that are more lasting and are what I think teachers should endeavor to do.”
Students say their relationship with teachers is part of what makes the school unique.
“I think truly here all the teachers know how to get everyone to work,” Peek said. “And if you don’t know how to work, they’ll get you there. A lot are encouraging, so that we do our work right and still have time to do our performing arts stuff.”
Ultimately, the school’s focus on the arts is what students say they enjoy the most.
“It’s an art school and I feel that draws a lot of people, and different kinds of people, and it just makes things more exciting,” freshman Owen Tate said. “Art to me is doing something no one else can do because it’s your viewpoint. It’ll always be there.”
Freshman Rayauna Wilburn said she believes Broad Ripple will prepare her for a future career in entertainment.
“I came here because it is different from any other school with a challenging education,” Wilburn said. “I came to the theater department because I want to be an actress, so I wanted to challenge myself to do something big.”
Wilburn added that she thinks the school’s many opportunities gives her and many students the experience needed to achieve these goals.
“I feel like it’s a school where kids can actually get what they need as far as what they want to be in life or what they want to do in the music program, the theater department, the band,” Wilburn said. “It’s a really good experience.”
To listen to Broad Ripple Principal Linda Davis’ school radio broadcast about the partnership, click here.
To view official Indiana Department of Education ISTEP results for individual schools, click here.