The Washington Post

Sig­na­ture’s re­cov­ery from rocky start of­fers lessons for schools across the coun­try

- jay.mathews@wash­post.com Society · Education · Health Care · Indiana · Cambridge · Stanford University · United States of America · Bob Barr · Evansville

When the Sig­na­ture School of Evansville, Ind., be­came a pub­lic char­ter cam­pus, the district it had been part of dis­patched tech­ni­cians to cut phone and In­ter­net lines and re­move com­put­ers and a copy ma­chine.

When that didn’t stop the break­away ef­fort, the su­per­in­ten­dent told Sig­na­ture teach­ers they had to re­turn to their former schools. “Ev­ery­one was quiet be­cause we were in tears,” said math teacher Shan­non Hughes. “We felt we were go­ing to lose our jobs. Our health in­sur­ance was in doubt. What would hap­pen to us?”

Amer­i­can char­ter schools of­ten have rough be­gin­nings. School dis­tricts usu­ally re­sist what they see as dam­ag­ing com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents and re­sources. But Sig­na­ture’s re­cov­ery from trou­ble­some days in 2002 and 2003 has been ex­cep­tional. It has be­come one of the na­tion’s most suc­cess­ful high schools, de­spite be­ing far from the big met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas that pro­duce the most cel­e­brated cam­puses.

Sig­na­ture has been highly ranked on my an­nual Chal­lenge In­dex list of high schools for many years. On the 2019 list, it is for the first time No. 1.

The list mea­sures par­tic­i­pa­tion in col­lege-level Ad­vanced Place­ment, In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate and Cam­bridge exams. Sig­na­ture has done well by re­plac­ing the typ­i­cal high school cur­ricu­lum with AP and IB cour­ses from ninth grade on, while re­main­ing open to all stu­dents, with a ran­dom lot­tery when­ever it is over­sub­scribed.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study by Stan­ford Univer­sity’s CREDO re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion, about three-quar­ters of char­ters do only as well or less well than reg­u­lar schools. But the quar­ter of char­ters like Sig­na­ture that do sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter — as well as many other schools that aren’t char­ters but har­bor sim­i­lar am­bi­tions — show how to un­leash the aca­demic po­ten­tial of U.S. teenagers.

Robert L. Koch (pro­nounced cook), head of a fam­ily met­al­work com­pany in Evansville, helped start Sig­na­ture in 1992 as a half-day en­rich­ment pro­gram for 11thand 12th-graders. He had been dis­sat­is­fied with the way his chil­dren and em­ploy­ees were be­ing ed­u­cated. He could not get the su­per­in­ten­dent to show him the av­er­age SAT scores. When a district staffer fi­nally slipped him the num­bers, they were not good.

A new su­per­in­ten­dent agreed to help him do some­thing. They joined with other lo­cal lead­ers to sup­port stan­dards above what was called the “gen­eral lane.”

“We did a video show­ing that if you are in the gen­eral lane,” Koch said, “you will prob­a­bly be in the un­em­ploy­ment lane.”

The su­per­in­ten­dent per­suaded the school board to au­tho­rize a spe­cial cam­pus called Sig­na­ture for en­hanced and ad­vanced high school cour­ses, open to pub­lic and pri­vate school stu­dents. Space was found in an old down­town re­tail store. It was pop­u­lar with fam­i­lies and teach­ers, but the lo­cal news­pa­per called it elit­ist. Af­ter 10 years, prin­ci­pals at tra­di­tional schools said they needed the money be­ing spent on Sig­na­ture.

The su­per­in­ten­dent who had helped start it moved to an­other job. The ed­u­ca­tors, busi­nesses and par­ents who wanted to keep it de­cided to make it a full-time high school un­der In­di­ana’s new char­ter law.

Hughes, one of its first teach­ers, said she found it in­vig­o­rat­ing. The AP cour­ses de­manded much more than Evansville schools had be­fore. As the AP cal­cu­lus exam — writ­ten and graded by out­side ex­perts — ap­proached, she held in­di­vid­ual prepa­ra­tion ses­sions for her stu­dents on week­ends. Over the years, the school switched from reg­u­lar cour­ses to AP ver­sions of his­tory, English and science. It added IB cour­ses in 2006.

“The teach­ers and I wanted to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where aca­demics came first,” said Vicki Sny­der, Sig­na­ture’s first prin­ci­pal. Sig­na­ture has sports (track, golf and cross-coun­try) and some mu­sic, speech and ser­vice ac­tiv­i­ties, but noth­ing close to what reg­u­lar pub­lic high schools have.

Only 14 per­cent of Sig­na­ture’s 366 stu­dents come from low­in­come fam­i­lies. The school is try­ing to re­cruit stu­dents from poorer parts of town. Other lo­cal schools ap­pear to be in­spired by its ex­am­ple. Evansville Cen­tral High, where 53 per­cent of stu­dents are from low-in­come fam­i­lies, is now in the top 10 per­cent of U.S. schools, ac­cord­ing to the Chal­lenge In­dex list.

The rise in stan­dards “is go­ing to pay huge div­i­dends in the long term in the econ­omy and fu­ture of south­west In­di­ana,” Koch said. Hughes said the stu­dents ab­sorb “a cul­ture of high ex­pec­ta­tions. They help each other.” Sig­na­ture stu­dents take at least 12 AP or IB cour­ses and exams be­fore grad­u­a­tion.

If ed­u­ca­tors in an oth­er­wise av­er­age city like Evansville can make such big im­prove­ments, why not ev­ery­one else?

 ?? Jay Mathews ??
Jay Mathews

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