When Angela Cordova finally paused to check her voicemail late one night in January, she was stunned by the robocall she’d received. The school district had chosen her neighborhood school, where she had been a parent for five years, for overhaul.
That means the principal and teachers could be removed next school year, and Indianapolis Public Schools could hand control of School 67, also known as Stephen Foster, to a private, charter operator tasked with improving its rock bottom state test scores.
Cordova loves the staff at the Westside campus, which educates about 600 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, and fears that if the school becomes a charter, it will not serve students with special needs well, she said. So, overnight, the mother of four students at School 67 became an activist.
“I really feel like pulling the rug from underneath the school’s feet is not the way to go,” Cordova said. “I think this school has the means and the opportunity. They just need a little support.”
In the days after she learned about the plan, she began reaching out to other families, and fielding anxious calls from parents she had never met before — she estimates she’s spoken to more than 70 family members from the school. Cordova was one of about a dozen family members and educators who attended a recent meeting to plead with IPS Board members to reject the dramatic improvement plan and keep the current principal and staff in place.
While it’s unclear how many parents at School 67 support the overhaul, an unusually vocal campaign to halt the restart has district leaders facing a crucial question: How much of a say should parents have in whether schools with chronically low test scores are overhauled?
The Indianapolis Public Schools board is expected to decide next week whether to move forward with the innovation plan.
School board members have said repeatedly the district needs to do a better job engaging families before decisions are made, and Superintendent Aleesia Johnson’s administration has made a push in her first year leading the district to reach out to residents. District officials also say that in the future, they want to make sure that parents understand how their schools are performing so they are not surprised by proposed interventions.
At School 67, however, many parents said they felt stunned by news of the restart.
While policymakers often focus on concrete measures, such as test scores, when judging school quality, parents and community members may value other factors, said Joshua Glazer, an associate professor of education policy at George Washington University. When district leaders decide to take over a school, “they are imposing their own definition of failing,” he said.
Over the past five years, Indianapolis Public Schools has restarted six struggling schools with innovation partners. Those schools are still considered part of the district — which counts their test scores and enrollment — but they are managed by outside charter operators, and the teachers are not represented by the district union.
Although some of the restart decisions were controversial, school board members have often been able to sidestep the question of parental input because opposition has been mixed with support. A parent organizing group, Stand for Children Indiana, and the new school leaders often persuade families that the overhauls are for the best. But as political opponents of innovation schools grow more organized, they could amplify criticism of restart plans.
Whether the board supports the overhaul of School 67 and School 48 — a near northside campus where a proposed restart has been met with less resistance — are important tests because it has not voted on any restarts since two members who are skeptical of the approach won seats in 2018. They would also be the first overhauls approved during Johnson’s administration.
Jamie VanDeWalle, who oversees innovation schools for the district, said that while some parents at School 67 may be happy with their teachers and relationships, data shows that students aren’t meeting their full potential.
“Our job is to make sure that every student leaves… ready to do whatever they want to do next in life,” VanDeWalle said. “We feel a really strong obligation to make change when we think change is what’s needed in order to ensure that kids can do that.”
When it comes to test scores, School 67 is getting unusually weak results. Just 3.7% percent of students passed both the state math and English tests, and the school also got low marks last year for the gains students made on those exams.
It’s difficult to say how much input parents should have in restarts because they may not be aware of the problems and low test scores in their schools, said Gary Henry, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development, who studied turnaround work in Tennessee. “Often the parents that are most active are the parents of the kids who are having the best experience,” he added.
But Henry cautioned that in Tennessee, takeover was not the most successful approach to turnaround. “In many schools, not a single adult employee who was there the previous year is there after the restart. And that’s a jarring experience for kids,” he said.
The power imbalance between the school system making decisions about restarts and families whose kids are at struggling schools can be particularly stark when it comes to innovation because the upheaval often affects low-income families and families of color.
For its part, School 67 serves a diverse population. It is located at the edge of Haughville, a working class neighborhood on the Westside of Indianapolis Public Schools, and nearly half of its students are English language learners — about twice the district average. More than 70 percent of students come from low-income families.
Before the administration recommended the restart at School 67, it held a sparsely attended focus group with parents and surveyed others to find out how the school was doing. But the campuswide meetings about innovation came after the central office had decided to recommend the restart to the school board.
For Cordova, it was galling to feel like she had no input on what would happen to her children’s school. And she found a kindred spirit in Chrissy Smith, an activist with the IPS Community Coalition, a local group with ties to a national movement that supports teachers unions and opposes charter schools.
“IPS thinks that they can just come in and do what they want to schools and parents aren’t going to stand up and say anything,” said Smith, a Westside parent who plans to run for school board in the fall. She tells parents, “’if you don’t want this, you have to speak out.’”
The Community Coalition offered parents at the schools facing overhaul advice on how to make the case against the restart. One document posted on Facebook entitled “What you can do to fight for your school!” included a list board members’ email addresses and instructions on how to signup for public comment. Another suggested questions to ask, including, “Why do we get no say in this decision before it was made?”
When Henry Ingram, who has two grandchildren at Stephen Foster, went to a couple of the district hosted parent meetings, it seemed “like they got their mind made up,” he said. Ingram said he opposes the restart because he has concerns about whether the campus will serve his grandchildren well if it becomes a charter school.
But Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana — which organizes parents and campaigns for school board candidates who support innovation schools — said that the vocal opposition at School 67 is the product of a national, pro-union movement that is allied with the Community Coalition and “spread[ing] fear” about restart efforts.
Still, Ohlemiller said he’s in favor of more parental involvement in these decisions. “I think parent input should absolutely play a role, a much stronger role in any decision to restart a school,” he said.
For many parents at School 67, the innovation recommendation came as a surprise because they hadn’t known the school was struggling and been given F grades from the state.
“They were shocked to know that the school was going to be restarted,” said school board member Elizabeth Gore, who attended one of the meetings at the campus. “They feel that their children are very stable in the environment.”
District reports on some of its lowest-performing schools, which Chalkbeat obtained through a public record request, show that School 67 had a lower growth score on the state exam than all but two of the 10 other struggling schools that were targeted for school quality reviews. The school received 62.6 points for “growth,” which measures how much students improve on exams. That’s more than 20 points lower than the district average.
Still some educators and parents say that test scores alone are not an accurate measure of a school. Standardized exams, they argue, narrow curriculum, punish schools with large shares of low-income students, and are consistently plagued by administrative problems.
In fact, full test results, which are typically included in state A-F grades for schools, have not been released for most Indiana schools because Indiana officials waited for lawmakers to approve a hold harmless measure following a precipitous decline in scores across the state in 2019.
Curtis King, who has five children at Stephen Foster, said that despite the school’s failing grade, it has done well by his children: Four of them are honor roll students, and his third-grade twins have developed the independence to be in separate classes. “It’s been great,” said King, who opposes the overhaul and fears a charter operator wouldn’t provide as much support to students with special needs.
Those are concerns that Alicia Hervey, who leads a charter school that could become School 67’s new operator, has heard from several parents in recent days. Hervey is planning a school called The PATH that the district could choose to takeover School 67. The model is built around “path” teams of educators that focus on groups of about 150-200 students and include a social worker or therapist, a special educator, an instructional coach, and an educator who follows students after they leave.
“We designed a model with a special educator on every single path team because we believe so strongly that support is the key to student success,” Hervey said. “We are not telling kids they can’t come to us. We are not walking away from the challenges of special education.”
In the days before the board decides on the future of School 67, some parents, teachers, and activists are making the case against dramatic intervention. Despite the school’s enduring academic challenges, they say educators have supported their children and families when they needed it most.
“I think sometimes parents are, they are attached to the teachers and they have that relationship,” said school board member Diane Arnold, who represents the neighborhood around the school. But most students at the campus are not on grade level, she said. “Where do we draw the line?”