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Principal’s update on underperforming school gets teacher association pushback

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TEACHERS are challenging Hope Elementary School’s leadership, while leaders are working to craft and implement a performance improvement plan required by the state.

During the first three years of the state’s A-F Accountability system, Hope Elementary scored a D in 2011, an F in 2012 and a D in 2013. Failure to raise the overall ranking to a C resulted in Hope Elementary being designated a priority school by the state Department of Education.

About 100 people attended and a dozen of them made comments during a Tuesday public hearing, one requirement of that designation, after listening to Principal Lisa Smith’s presentation on the school’s progress.

Signs of friction included:

The Flat Rock-Hawcreek Teachers Association announced a vote of no confidence in Smith’s leadership.

Parents begged the school board to bring back 14 teaching assistant positions cut in 2011.

A few teachers blamed colleagues for not being invested in their work.

Mixed support for leader

A majority of teachers association members have no confidence in Smith as a principal, kindergarten teacher Stacy Kirk announced during the public hearing.

“It’s not a blame game,” she said. “It’s holding leaders accountable.”

She said when teachers learned what a dire situation the school was in, association members knew something needed to happen. The state requires priority schools either to replace their principal or demonstrate that the leader is capable of leading the turnaround effort.

“Everybody is put in a really hard spot that no one wants to be in,” Kirk said. “It was not just coming in one day after school and putting a vote in depending on what type of day you had. That’s not the type of vote it was.”

Kirk did not reveal more details, such as the final tally or the conversation surrounding the vote.

Smith said that is telling.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” the principal said. “I hope they (opposing teachers) decide to get on board.”

The no-confidence vote from the teachers union doesn’t carry any legal weight, DOE spokesman Daniel Altman said.

But it does mean the teachers — at least a number of them — and administrators are at odds.

Sixth-grade teacher Dan Fleming criticized the vote.

“There’s a lot of pressure on teachers right now. They are angry; they are very unhappy,” Fleming said. “A school that has unhappy teachers is not as productive as it could be.”

He reminded the crowd that Smith has already demonstrated she can lead a turnaround effort. The school was on probation when she came to Hope in 2006, but it was soon recognized for making commendable progress.

Kirk said despite the vote, teachers will be fully cooperative with school administrators.

“Hope has an amazing staff,” she said. “We know the board has a tough decision. The first priority for teachers is making sure the children have the knowledge they need to be successful.”

A sense of urgency

Several teachers and parents asked the board why improvement plans and needs had not been shared earlier.

“We had a D, we had an F, we had a D,” third-grade teacher Julie Swegman said. “But it was just in the last few weeks that there was this sense of urgency. We can’t wait another three years.”

“I feel like it’s almost too late at this point,” said Amy Taylor, a parent of two girls at Hope Elementary.

But Superintendent Kathy Griffey said the improvement plan is not a new concept. It is always being revisited and discussed.

Smith said she didn’t notify parents and teachers about the priority school designation because she was still learning about the requirements as late as January, when outreach coordinator Kathy McCarty told her all schools that received an F and then a D would need to take additional action.

What happens next is just as unclear.

“We’ve been told that there is never anything that can be taken off the table,” she said.

That includes the possibility of a state takeover or personnel overhaul.

Smith said her job is on the line if the school receives an F next year, and so are the jobs of the teachers.

Hope Elementary teachers received an email a few weeks ago from Smith warning them about this.

Swegman and Kirk said they were told 50 percent of the teachers could lose their jobs next year.

“Could” is the key word.

“With the state Legislature, the requirements are always a changing landscape,” Griffey said.

Community initiative

Despite the blame and accusations shared during the public-comment session, several teachers and parents offered to help Hope Elementary improve.

Smith said there is a sense of community growing that started when a group of teachers and administrators attended a leadership program at Indiana University. From that training came the “United Hope” initiative, which encourages a culture of community

and engagement.

“United Hope is belonging, believing, achieving,” Smith said.

Parents are asking where they can find “United Hope” shirts and offering to organize hog roasts.

Melissa Newcomb, a mother of four and a part-time veterinarian, said she would gladly help out in the classroom.

“Don’t forget about us,” she said. “We’re not getting enough information to be helpful to you. I’d like to stay here. This is a ship worth fighting for.”

Signs of improvement

During the hearing, Smith explained how Hope Elementary’s test scores resulted in a low grade from the state, but also how the school almost earned a passing grade.

The A-F Accountability system takes into account student growth, and that’s where Smith said Hope Elementary lost the most points.

The Indiana Growth Model takes a student’s ISTEP+ score one year and groups that student with all other students in the state with the same score. The state then looks at all those scores in the following year to determine the growth of individual students compared with peers.

At Hope Elementary, many of the students did not improve enough.

“If we wouldn’t have had those points taken away for growth, we would have actually had a C,” she said.

So growth has been identified as a Priority Area of Improvement, with teachers asked to focus on students who made the difference between the school earning a D and C, Smith said.

As part of the United Hope Project, a data wall will be used to track student progress.

Despite the areas needing improvement, Smith said every third-grader passed the IREAD-3 exam, which demonstrates they are reading at grade level.

And things are looking good for this year’s ISTEP+. Smith has looked at the scores from Acuity, a test taken frequently to indicate progress and act as a predictor for ISTEP+.

Most students are scoring near 80 percent. She said McCarty visited the school Thursday to assess progress and was impressed.

“She applauded us for that already,” Smith said. “That was very good, and we’re feeling very good. There are some great things going on.”

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