Next moves

During its year off from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district eyes Chattanooga

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A student at work at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

With its one-year hiatus from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district is focusing on adding supports for its 33 existing schools in Memphis and Nashville, with an eye toward possible expansion in Chattanooga beginning in 2018.

Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson also met earlier this month with Shawn Joseph, the new superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. However, White said he did not know whether that meeting, which also included state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, included talks about possible further expansion in Nashville, where the ASD now operates two schools.

Most of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools have either been closed or are already under turnaround plans through the ASD or Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee’s fourth largest district, saw its standardized test scores decline in 2015 and has been in transition since March when Rick Smith resigned as superintendent. The city has launched a school improvement initiative known as Chattanooga 2.0 to increase pre-K access, literacy rates and career readiness.

Five Chattanooga schools were on Tennessee’s 2014 list of priority schools — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically — which would have made them eligible for state intervention:

  • Brainerd High
  • Dalewood Middle
  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Orchard Knob Middle
  • Woodmore Elementary

The next priority school list is scheduled to be released next summer, but the state released a warning list earlier this year of schools in danger. In addition to the five Hamilton County on the 2014 list, this year’s list of schools in the bottom 5 percent includes:

  • Clifton Hills Elementary
  • The Howard School in Chattanooga

Nashville also is ripe for more state intervention. The city had 15 schools on the 2014 priority school list, including Neely’s Bend Middle, which the ASD took control of in 2015. This year’s warning list included 11 of those schools and four additional schools* in the bottom 5 percent:

  • Kirkpatrick Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Buena Vista Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Napier Elementary Enhancement Option
  • Inglewood Elementary
  • John B Whitsitt Elementary
  • Bailey STEM Magnet Middle
  • Madison Middle
  • Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High
  • Robert Churchwell Elementary
  • Jere Baxter Middle
  • Joelton Middle
  • Wright Middle*
  • Warner Elementary Enhanced Option*
  • McKissack Middle*
  • Whites Creek High*

The state’s next priority list will be based on two years of test data instead of the normal three because of this year’s failed rollout of TNReady, the state’s new standardized test.

The ASD’s entrance into Chattanooga would be more deliberate and methodical than it was in Memphis, according to White. He said the district plans to learn from missteps in taking control of schools in Memphis, which prompted deep distrust between the state-run district and the community.

“Memphis did not have the benefit of a long runway,” he said of the ASD’s startup in 2012. “A longer runway allows us to deal with misconceptions on the front end. … Sometimes the best efforts are undermined by bad information.”

Talks with Chattanooga leaders won’t necessarily lead to school takeovers, emphasized Lauren Walker, ASD chief of staff.

“We want to get under the hood and understand the context there,” Walker said. “The (warning) list only gives a small picture of what’s happening.”

Hamilton County Schools has its own Innovation Zone for school turnaround work, but it has not seen the same academic gains as Shelby County Schools’ iZone.

While the warning list does not carry the same weight as the priority list, it offers districts a sneak peek at which schools might be eligible for state intervention beginning in 2018. One reason for new additions to the warning list is that the bar for the state’s bottom 5 percent has risen as priority schools see academic growth. In 2012, when the first list came out, the lowest percent of students learning at grade level at a school was 16.7. Last year, that number rose to 26 percent, according to state data aggregated by the ASD.

In announcing its school takeover hiatus in April, the ASD left room to open new schools during the interim. None are slated to open as new starts in 2016-17 school year, but that is a possibility for the following year. Charter operators under the ASD run five new-start schools, all in Memphis.

The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.

“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.