Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Let's see how it does, first

This was my public comment to the Indiana Charter School authorization board in regard to the application of a proposed Purdue Polytechnic High School, South Bend.

I am a 28 year resident of South Bend and the father of a Junior at John Adams High School. I served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children for about seven years.  I have also volunteered as a mentor in the South Bend Community School Corporation.

As my daughter approached school age I began to look deeply into public education and attendant issues nationwide.  I am also quite familiar with the operations of our local schools and have written quite a bit about that.
I am currently a member of the Finance Committee of the recently formed west side Empowerment Zone.

South Bend had the first Indiana Charter School – Veritas Academy.  It and the later Xavier Academy both were ultimately unsuccessful.  There is one K-12 Charter company in operation currently. Oddly its Career Academy High School is omitted from the applicant's listing of area schools.

The applicant indicates its need for being is to help a “target student population” of “underrepresented minority students” - particularly west side residents.  It goes on to say that this group is fed on to Washington High School and implies (without detail) that Washington is in some way defective.

In South Bend, any High School student can choose to attend any of the four High Schools with provided transportation.  And as the applicant acknowledges, Washington’s most recent state grade was a C.  Average.

I do know from my time as a CASA and having lived here 28 years, students in this group often suffer from deficits in reading and writing skills.  Without rectifying those issues, any learning will be difficult.  The application offers no awareness of this problem, let alone any strategy to address it.

The part of their approach they spend the most time explaining sounds pretty similar to Project Based learning programs which failed at the short-lived New Tech High School here.  It is now the focus of a magnet program at Jackson Middle School, where perhaps it will do better.  That component also includes working in a local business. 

The other 50% of students’ grades come from online testing via Edmentum. The implication is that students will spend half of their time “e-learning”.

While I don’t dispute that these internships (as they refer to them) would have value, they would also seem likely to be a handful to manage – given the necessarily small staff of a school of 100 students per grade level.  Recruiting worthy businesses and monitoring these situations for each student would seem to require a significant investment in time.

In regard to the second component, online K-12 education has a dubious record generally.  And the problem with researching Edmentum on a Google search is that they wrote almost everything that appears in the results. Most of that is about how much money they raise or make. Not helpful.

And if this program is aimed at a group with struggling readers, what is the likely efficacy of online self-education for a student with poor reading/comprehension skills? That isn’t explained.

Perplexingly, the program they offer also requires students to make a lifetime career decision in the 10th grade, with scheduled reaffirmations. How many people do you know who felt capable of making that decision at age 15?  And of that group, for how many did that actually work out?

Reviewing the course list, one discovers very narrow offerings.  No team sports.  No arts instruction of any kind.  No dance, theater, visual arts, vocal music, instrumental music – in fact, nothing inviting individual creativity at all.  Research is very clear that these non-STEM components of education are critically import to a student's educational experience.

Public education aspires to help our children grow into informed, productive, and at least reasonably comfortable citizens. Programs such as Purdue Polytechnic's are designed to produce workers for a specific industry, and nothing more. In fact, they reveal that their long term objective is to create a nation-wide network of “Charter Schools that will serve as an academic feeder system to Purdue University”

But even if you think all that is OK, the application is written as though the applicant has decades of experience, fabulous test scores to tout, hundreds of graduates, and alums with high paying, rewarding careers.  The reality is that it has had less than three years of experience, no graduates, and only one testing experience involving a very small number of students. It has had difficultly with the same enrollment goals in Indianapolis - a much bigger city than South Bend. At this point, it can best be described as an experimental program.

I’ll confess to some discomfort with placing our children in the position of guinea pigs in this experiment.  The experiment is already under way in Indianapolis.  I think that we should allow enough time to evaluate the results before endorsing an expansion.  It’s hard to make good decisions without good data.

Don Wheeler
South Bend

What do you think it symbolizes?