tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

Now, about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.


Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.


Up next for the PEP: Five mergers, one missing member, and a snow delay

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Teacher Aixa Rodriguez speaks at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in 2016.

As a winter storm bears down on New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has canceled school — which means the city’s oversight panel’s meeting slated for Wednesday is off, too.

The Panel for Educational Policy’s meeting hasn’t been rescheduled, but when its members do meet, they will have to decide whether to OK a new set of school mergers. It’s likely to be less contentious than last month’s meeting, when the Panel for Educational Policy voted down two of the education department’s school closure proposals and delayed a third in a rare rebuke.

This time around, there are no school closures on the agenda. But there may still be reverberations from last month’s meeting.

Soon after that meeting, T. Elzora Cleveland, a mayoral appointee to the panel and who cast a deciding vote to block two of the closures, resigned. And there are still open questions about how the panel will approach future education department proposals. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

Who will serve on the oversight board going forward?

After casting a deciding vote blocking two of the education department’s closure proposals, Cleveland resigned from the board. Her resignation raised questions about whether City Hall had lost patience with her dissent and urged her to step down, but it also leaves the 13-person panel with one fewer member.

On Tuesday, City Hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie said the mayor had not yet chosen a replacement. “We are actively working to appoint a new panel member,” she wrote in an email.

Lapeyrolerie declined to comment on when the mayor would make an appointment, which will give the administration a smaller margin of error until the seat is filled

Will the panel continue to push back against the administration’s proposals?

Since eight of the board’s 13 members are appointed by de Blasio, the panel has generally approved proposals submitted by the education department, which the mayor also controls. Last month was a notable exception. Though the panel approved 10 school closures at that meeting — the largest single wave since de Blasio took office — it blocked three others after more than eight hours of impassioned testimony from lawmakers and families.

With a smaller number of mayoral appointees currently seated on the board, it could be slightly easier to block the education department’s proposals. Without Cleveland, the panel currently has just 12 members— so just one dissenting mayoral appointee could block a proposal if the other five panel members vote as a bloc.

But now that the largest wave of closures this year has passed, it’s unlikely that the panel will face as many contentious votes before the mayor appoints a new member to the oversight panel.

Could the current slate of school mergers generate similar backlash?

The education department’s plans include five mergers, where one school’s teachers and students are absorbed into another. Two of the plans involve schools in the mayor’s controversial and expensive Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools. In many of those cases, city officials have argued mergers are needed where schools have become too small to sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, as funding is allocated partly based on enrollment.

Though less contentious than closures, mergers can still spark fierce resistance from school communities. And the education department’s plan to merge Longwood Preparatory Academy and Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research and add a Success Academy charter middle school to the building has already prompted outcry from some advocates, educators, and students.

“Hundreds of parents, students and teachers protested the new wave of school closings at the February 28 PEP meeting,” Bronx Power, an organization that has criticized school closures, wrote in a statement announcing a protest of the Longwood Prep merger. “Although most of the schools were closed as proposed, momentum is building to stop this new de Blasio policy.”

Whatever the outcome, the upcoming meeting won’t offer members of the public an opportunity to address schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down April 2. Before the meeting was canceled, Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson was set to attend in Fariña’s place.

You can find the full list of the education department’s proposals here.