Charter school trying to build on test-score progress

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The tactic of rolling out aggressive changes seems to be proving successful at Indy Met, although many say the charter high school now needs to work on solidifying its gains.

With results from summer remediation still to come, Superintendent Scott Bess projected Indianapolis Metropolitan High School students are on track for a pass rate of at least 65 percent on the state’s standardized algebra exam.

That would be four times higher than last year’s pass rate of 16 percent among students who had been at Indy Met at least a year and had completed Algebra I.

Bess expected pass rates on the English exam of at least 55 percent, based on early returns—also a big jump from last year’s pass rate of 35 percent.

“These kinds of results in this short a time are really good,” Bess said. Speaking of changes Indy Met rolled out in January, he said, “I absolutely would do this again.”

Before the overhaul, Indy Met had been structured more like an elementary school. Each teacher spent the entire day with about 16 students, guiding them through all their subjects. Students would get only small chunks of time with other teachers, who had specialties their all-day “advisers” did not.

That structure fostered strong student-teacher relationships, but academics suffered. Now students switch classes throughout the day, more like a traditional high school. And many pupils say they’re doing better with the new structure—especially in math.

Senior Ro Holcomb said her adviser last year was a science teacher, but wasn’t as strong teaching algebra as the teachers she’s had this year. She still didn’t pass the end-of-course assessment in May, but after doing half-days of test prep this summer, she expressed confidence she would pass the test.

“I understand it better,” said Holcomb, sitting in Indy Met’s cafeteria. “When I take it next time, I’ll pass it. I’m sure of that.”

Instructor Cait Schrup, who led Holcomb and others through the test prep, said the key to Indy Met’s higher pass rates on the algebra exam was a highly structured program the school’s six math teachers constructed over winter break.

Each class period was divided into the same five components every day—starting with a review of the previous day’s material, followed by examples of the new day’s concepts, and ending with a quick quiz to see how well students grasped the new material. All six teachers covered the same material every day and tracked which students were getting it and which needed more help.

“Students need that,” Schrup said of the structured approach, noting that Indy Met’s mostly poor and mostly minority students often have highly unstructured lives outside of school. “I think they crave it.”

Now the English team is following the math team’s lead in hopes of achieving similar gains in test scores.

Shanna Bohdan, an English teacher, said the changes overall have been helpful, but now the entire school could benefit from a time of refinement, free from any significant new changes. But that’s not Indy Met’s way, she said.

“Ready, fire, aim. That is how things occur at Met,” said Bohdan, describing its innovative culture as both attractive and aggravating. “We’ll do what you think is best for kids. We’ll do whatever. But let’s not change our minds every three weeks.”

Not helping matters this year was the February departure of Indy Met principal Carlotta Cooprider after a disagreement with Bess. Indy Met named a new principal just last week.

The changes also made it difficult for Indy Met to implement merit-based bonuses. The school had received a grant to reward outstanding educators, but leaders scrapped the plan because it was too difficult to link teachers to individual students’ performance.

It’s a problem that will now fall on the state Board of Education and, after that, all public high schools. Beginning in 2012, they must be able to rank teachers into four performance categories based partly on test scores—even though each high school student is taught by seven teachers per day.

A pot of $100,000 in grant money Indy Met had earmarked for merit pay is now being directed to programs for students and classroom technology, such as iPads. Indy Met hopes to give out teacher bonuses next year as part of a new teacher improvement program it’s implementing.

Some Indy Met students also complained that this year’s changes led to confusion. Octavia Sims, who will be a senior, was scheduled for a course she had already completed. And Kiimon Kennedy, who also will be a senior, said some of his credits were mistakenly assigned to another student, so he was forced into a course he had already taken.

“I learned better under the old way,” Kennedy said.

While change can be for the better, it isn’t always a silver bullet, said Brenda Ellington Booth, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She advises schools to test changes on small groups of students before rolling them out school-wide.

“Just because a school is innovative doesn’t mean it’s successful,” Booth said. “With experimentation comes success and failure.”•

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