As the I Promise School entered its fifth year of operation this fall, Akron Public Schools officials quietly made a change to the lottery system that determines the makeup of the school’s students.
District officials said the change, which was effective for this fall’s third grade class, does not change the mission to serve students who are often two grades behind in reading. Rather, they said, the number of students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities has grown significantly and needed to be curtailed to comply with state law and union agreements, and also to better meet kids’ needs.
“It makes it difficult for us to continue to provide the teachers with the supports that they need while at the same time supporting individual students,” said Tamiko Hatcher, Akron’s director of specialty programs.
By design, the I Promise School, a public school operated in partnership with The LeBron James Family Foundation, serves many of Akron’s most vulnerable students. Despite students’ challenges, the school has a plethora of resources and high hopes of moving the needle not just in Akron but in urban education across the country.
But the school has struggled academically and is likely to find itself on the state’s priority list of schools performing in the bottom 5%, which would require leaders to develop and implement plans for improvement that would be overseen by the state.
Change to lottery limits those with IEPs
The school serves grades three through eight, with new students only admitted in third grade. The population is created through a lottery of second graders, and to get into the lottery, students must already be in APS and test in the bottom 30% of reading scores. The lottery randomly selects 115 students, with a small number with significant disabilities removed from the process. Families can opt out if their child is chosen.
Hatcher said the lottery system meant the school could end up with a few or many students who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities. State law says no classroom may have a majority of students with disabilities, unless it is a designated special education classroom. The district’s union agreement with the Akron Education Association limits that to one-third of students in a classroom, Hatcher said.
AEA President Pat Shipe declined to comment for this article.
Last year, 30% of I Promise students had at least one recognized disability that required an individualized education plan, known as an IEP. Hatcher said in some classes, it was 40-45%. Districtwide, 17% of students have a disability.
In many cases, he said, students aren’t diagnosed until third, fourth or fifth grade with a learning disability. If I Promise accepts a high number of students with a known disability in third grade, it doesn’t leave much room for other kids to be diagnosed and to meet the demands of their IEP. The requirements of an IEP range significantly, but may require a student to receive extra time on tests or assignments, additional tutoring and one-on-one time or for material to be read aloud to them. It also can impact the way a student may be disciplined.
That’s why the district decided, Hatcher said, to limit the number of students admitted through the lottery who have a known disability that requires an IEP.
“The only way to really allow for us to accommodate kids and to do so in a fair and equitable way was to do it on the front end, to create enough of a space or a buffer to allow students who got identified to move forward,” Hatcher said.
Starting with this year’s third graders, only 10% of incoming students can have an IEP.
“There are significant needs for students who have disabilities, and we want to make sure that we can address them,” Hatcher said. “And there are other environments across the district who have a proven track record in those areas.”
While there is a strong correlation between students who are behind and those with learning disabilities, Hatcher said the school was not designed to serve such a high population of students with disabilities.
“To identify students who are struggling in (English) and math is one thing,” Hatcher said. “To also say I’m going to create a school that addresses students with different learning disabilities, is a different school.”
Academics, teacher turnover concerns
In its short history, I Promise has had to recover from a year of remote learning and a sudden change in leadership that left the school with two interim principals for over a year. Even before the pandemic, many of its students lived in poverty and were exposed to trauma. On any given day, staff could find a handful of kids who hadn’t eaten since they left school the day before.
Still, the school’s test scores, released last month, were the lowest of any school in Akron Public Schools, with the exception of an alternative high school. Of all the non-charter public schools in the state, only 20 received a lower performance index score — a measure created by adding together the results of every state test students took — than the I Promise School. Its index was lower than Akron’s other two schools, Helen Arnold and Innes Community Learning Centers, that have previously earned state priority designations for testing in the bottom 5%.
The Ohio priority list will likely be released in December, a state spokesperson said. The state is required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to create such a list of a schools in need of improvement.
In some states, being named to the list can put a school in danger of state takeover, but Ohio does not have such a mechanism for intervention for individual schools. Only entire districts that are low performing can trigger a state takeover.
Still, the designation brings with it a degree of scrutiny, and may make it harder for Akron to point to this effort as one that moves forward the conversation about the best strategies in urban education. It also signals to parents that the school is struggling.
The school has already had families request to transfer out, Hatcher said, with some parents expressing concerns for their students’ safety in the building.
“I do have parents who say my kid doesn’t feel safe,” Hatcher said.
Teacher turnover also has reached a concerning level, he said.
“I don’t have enough of that data, but I do have enough concern when you have high levels of staff mobility that is above the norm,” Hatcher said.
Three stars for progress, but district expects more
I Promise earned one star out of five on the report card for its achievement levels, but three stars for progress, meaning it met the state’s expectation for one year’s worth of growth.
Despite intentionally creating a population of students who have struggled academically, district officials said they still have higher expectations for the school.
Hatcher said given its resources, which include a longer school day, extra teachers and ways to help meet families’ basic needs, the district expects the I Promise School to be able to move students forward at a rate of one and a third years’ worth of growth in one year. That would get a student who is two years behind in third grade back on track before they reach high school.
“We signed up for how we attract, who we allow in, and there can’t be any excuses for why they don’t perform at that rate,” Hatcher said. “To me, we’ve got to get to that mark.”
While the data for third graders is expected to be low because of students coming into the school so behind, the school’s seventh graders also significantly struggled. Just 8.2% of them tested proficient on their English test, and 1% tested proficient in math.
Chronic absenteeism, meaning students missed at least 10% of the school year, was a problem districtwide, with nearly half of APS students hitting that mark. Despite the extensive family supports available, 45% of I Promise students were chronically absent last year.
Foundation looks to keep providing supports
As a partner in the operation of I Promise, The LeBron James Family Foundation is part of the problem-solving team at the school, but more so in the form of wraparound supports like housing, food, clothing or even job training for parents.
Executive Director Michele Campbell said she leaves the education experts to make the decisions around who qualifies for the lottery, the curriculum and other academic-based concerns — including whether the school ends up on the priority list.
“What LeBron wants to do is get involved on the ground level and be part of the solution,” Campbell said. “Because this country for however many years is failing a lot of our students, the whole country. So lists don’t matter anything to me.”
When the foundation “rolled up our sleeves” five years ago, Campbell said, people asked them if they were sure.
“If you do that and your school doesn’t have great test scores, people are going to take these tunnel vision lists and say you’re failing and your school’s failing,” Campbell said. “And we said we don’t care because someone has to take a risk. Someone has to get involved. Someone has to get out from behind their desk in these communities, and help our public school system and help our students that need the most help.”
Campbell said the foundation is looking at upping its efforts to support students toward catching up, including further offerings over the summer.
“If it doesn’t work perfectly, I’m going to continue to listen and try something else,” she said.
Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at [email protected], at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.