Achievement School District places two Nashville middle schools on turnaround list

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Madison Middle Prep is one of the schools Achievement School District officials and officials from LEAD Public Schools are considering turning around.
The Achievement School District Thursday selected two Nashville middle schools for possible intervention next year, and will decide Dec. 12 which of them to take over.
Neely’s Bend Middle Prep and Madison Middle Prep are located less than four miles apart in the section of the northeastern part of the city called Madison, a community once home to country music stars like Patsy Cline and Earl Scruggs, and now populated largely by  Nashville’s growing working and middle class.
Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which includes the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The Achievement School District is meant to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 20.
Teachers at the schools learned earlier this week that either Neely’s Bend or Madison will be operated by LEAD Public Schools, a local charter management organization, next school year. Which school the ASD will choose to hand over to LEAD depends on input from community meetings at each school on Dec. 4.  ASD officials will announce their decision a week later, on Dec. 12.
The ASD already has one Nashville school under its control. It partnered with LEAD to turnaround Brick Church Middle School in 2012. That time, the decision was made without public meetings between charter officials, parents and teachers, which ASD officials call part of the “matching process.”
The matching process for potential ASD schools in Memphis began more than a month ago, where district officials intended to expand by 12 schools in the 2015-16 school year. Unlike in years past, they have been met with organized opposition from teachers and parents who say that the  “matching” process is confusing, and disruptive. Vocal critics at the community meetings have pointed to the ASD’s  mixed track record with the first two waves of schools it took over in Memphis.  Last month officials announced a list of 12 schools it was considering turning around in Memphis.
A week after the names of the schools were released, two charter organizations, Freedom Prep and KIPP, withdrew from the process. On Wednesday, the California-based charter organization Green Dot followed suit, citing lack of community support.
Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, said that the matching process in Nashville is shorter than the one in Memphis because the ASD is dealing with fewer schools and operators. He said a week allowed “ample opportunity” for district officials to make up their minds.
Because of the limited number of organizations authorized by the ASD to open schools in Nashville, the district’s expansion in the city has been less dramatic than in Memphis. Currently, the ASD has one other school in the capital, which is also operated by LEAD Public Schools.
As of now, LEAD Public Schools is one of only three charter groups that the ASD has authorized to take over or open schools in Nashville. The other two operators, KIPP and Rocketship, are not focusing on opening more schools with the ASD at this time, Smalley said.LEAD currently operates four schools in Nashville: LEAD Academy, Brick Church, Cameron College Prep Academy, and LEAD Prep Southeast.“It’s just a question of putting quality over scale and working with that charter operator and making sure they’re growing at the right pace, the pace that’s right for them,” Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief operating officer, told Chalkbeat in September.

Smalley said that Nashville might see  more charter operators partnering  with the ASD in coming years. The ASD will approve new operators in June.

Although the ASD has a mixed record in Memphis,  its Nashville school has done well. Brick Church College Prep saw the largest test score gains in the ASD this year, with the passing rates at the school increasing by about 20 percentage points in reading and math. About 30 percent of Brick Church’s students are classified as special education students, almost three times the state average.

When LEAD was matched with Brick Church two years ago there was no public input process, and the timeline was shorter. LEAD learned it was taking over Brick Church in March, and began with their first group of fifth graders in August — a span of just four months.
LEAD phases into schools, meaning it takes over only one grade level at a time, and shares a building with the school it is meant to replace . Chris Reynolds, LEAD’s CEO,  said co-location, as the practice is called, is a benefit for both the new charter grades and the school being phased out. In both schools the charter organization has gone into, the test scores of students in the grades still operated by the traditional school have seen a boost. Both Cameron College Prep, LEAD’s school, and Cameron Middle School, the traditional public school being phased out, were among the fastest improving in the state.

Reynolds said that he hoped the months between now and the beginning of school in August would allow for collaboration between teachers at the existing schools and LEAD. Teachers from LEAD’s schools will be visiting Madison Middle Prep today to talk to teachers, said Stephen Henry, the president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He attended a meeting held by the ASD for faculty at Madison.

Christy King, a sixth grade English teacher at Madison, said that, after attending the meeting, she was frustrated that ASD officials were discounting the gains made last year under a new principal. Madison’s passing rates went up 3.4 percentage points in math and less than one point in English.

“We didn’t grow as much as we should, but we’re moving up,” King said. She also said changes principal Michelle Demps began implementing at Madison last year will have a bigger impact on test scores in the spring.

Demps recruited new teachers to the school, and told some teachers they were not a good fit for Madison — something that principals rarely do, King said. She also has given gave teachers more time for professional development, has facilitated lesson planning in teams to increase collaboration and peer-learning, and has brought in new writing and reading programs.

“We feel like last year was really our first year with a true turnaround middle school principal leading the school,” King said. “She knows her stuff, she knows what’s current, she knows how to lead.”

But Barbic said he hopes Nashville’s matching process will be less teacher-centric, and more parent-centric than Memphis’s.
“I feel like there are times where we didn’t have enough parents in the room in the same way [as teachers],” he said. “That’s something we really want to try to work to improve. While this is disruptive for teachers, and we understand that disruption, at the end of the day, we’re serving families.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Brick Church’s average scores went up more than 20 percent. The percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced increased by more than 20 percent.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.