sorting the students

Facing closure, some Memphis parents hope to form K-8 school, but others aren’t sold

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A community group proposed combining Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle School, but elementary parents aren't convinced.

About 35 frustrated parents and teachers from Manor Lake Elementary School made it clear to district officials in a recent meeting that they don’t want their school merged with a nearby middle school.

The reaction from Manor Lake parents dashed hopes that a proposal from other parents to combine the school with Geeter Middle School would gain support.

The parents who made the proposal are part of a larger leadership group representing the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which both schools will enter next year. Also in that group are students, teachers, and community leaders who represent a cluster of low-performing neighborhood schools.

Shelby County Schools officials had hoped that a proposal generated by parents would help win support from other parents in the neighborhood because parents rarely support closing a school.

Some of the parents at Manor Lake told district officials they fear the influence of older students if their school is combined with Geeter.

The district hopes that if the schools in that zone work together, test scores will improve. Parent and community leaders said the consolidation would stave off closure by the district, which would scatter students to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood.

District leaders saw the move as a way to avoid state takeover by combining resources into one building, allowing them to direct more money to improving academic performance. Both Manor Lake Elementary and Geeter Middle feed into Fairley High School, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addresses Manor Lake Elementary parents.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the ASD,” said Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone.

Manor Lake teacher Lisa Chalmers said even though the proposal would allow students to stick together, she was worried about the blight of another empty building in an area that has experienced many school closures in recent years.

“I know they [the state] want our schools. But we want our schools too,” she said.

District leaders described the school’s declining test scores, poor building condition, and low enrollment as other reasons for combining the schools, which are both at risk of closure. Teachers in the audience attributed the lack of academic growth to adding students from at least two schools that had been closed in recent years.

Either way, the schools will face disruption going into next school year. As part of entering the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone next year, all teachers at both schools will have to re-apply to their positions — a common practice among turnaround programs.

The meeting last week was the second convened by district leaders after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented the proposal to the school board last month. Parents said the proposal came as a surprise and that they didn’t know about the first meeting held soon after Hopson’s announcement.

Proponents of combining elementary and middle grades say if students change schools fewer times between kindergarten and 12th grade, they perform better on tests. But studies on the topic are mixed. A 2011 University of Minnesota review of relevant studies said more research is needed to be definitive.

Sherrie Jackson, who despite not living in Manor Lake’s boundary chose the school for her two children, called the idea “ludicrous” because she didn’t want her rising kindergartner to be in the same building as eighth graders.

“What if one of these small children get hurt with those big kids over there?” she asked. “The more kids you have in the school, the less one-on-one time they get.”

Hunter said elementary and middle school students would be on separate floors of the building, a similar set up to the district’s 13 other K-8 schools.

“The only thing that’s going to make you feel totally better is when you see it and live it,” he told Jackson during the meeting. Still, Jackson and others said they would take their students elsewhere if the district goes through with the proposal.

“I’m just going to have to look around, probably transfer her, see where I can find a school for her to go to that’s K through fifth grade,” said Kimeri Golden, whose daughter is a third-grader at Manor Lake, after the meeting.

The school board is scheduled to give its final vote on the proposal at its regular meeting in April.

red ratings

Closure is still an option, but a new approach will let struggling Denver schools make their case

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

Denver schools with persistently low test scores will have to present detailed improvement plans this fall, but they no longer face automatic closure or replacement.

The Denver school board on Monday night agreed to a more flexible process for intervening in struggling schools. The changes mean the board will have more options and more discretion.

The process also seeks to give greater weight to information about a school’s culture, the demographics of the students it serves, and how school staff support those students socially and emotionally. In past years, school closure decisions were based overwhelmingly on academic factors, such how students fared on state literacy and math tests.

Ten low-performing schools are eligible for intervention this year (see box). The board is set to vote in December and January on which actions to take at each school.

Schools eligible for intervention:
John F. Kennedy High School
West Leadership Academy
Collegiate Preparatory Academy
STRIVE Prep – Excel
Girls Athletic Leadership High School
Lake Middle School
DSST: Cole Middle School
Compass Academy
McGlone Academy
Stedman Elementary School

How to improve struggling schools is a key question for urban school districts across the country. However, Denver Public Schools stands out nationally for adopting a policy in 2015 codifying that it should “promptly intervene” when a school is persistently underperforming and coming up with guidelines that set a clear path to school closure.

But the rollout of the policy was rocky, with critics attacking both the premise that closing struggling schools is good for students and the process the board used to do it.

The idea to change the process was first proposed in June by board member Lisa Flores. She cited several reasons, including frustration from teachers and parents who complained the board wasn’t considering the positive aspects of their schools, and a feeling among board members that the bright-line rules didn’t allow them to exercise their judgement.

Two other board members, Jennifer Bacon and Angela Cobián, spent the past several months working with district staff to come up with a new process. They presented it at a work session Monday night, and all the board members in attendance gave their approval. The 2015 policy will remain the same, but the guidelines for carrying it out will be different.

“I do not think the ‘why’ has changed, and the ‘why’ is incredibly important: It’s about serving our children and serving our children well,” board president Anne Rowe said.

The old guidelines were strict but simple. They said that if a school earned the lowest rating on the district’s color-coded quality scale, denoted by the color red, for two years in a row, and its students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be designated for closure or replacement.

A school could also be closed or replaced if it earned a red rating in the most recent year and either a red or an orange rating, the second-lowest on the scale, in the previous two years. The ratings, released each fall, are largely based on state test scores.

Denver gives extra money — as much as $1.7 million over five years — to its lowest-rated schools in an effort to help them improve before interventions are necessary.

The new process is more complicated. It calls for red-rated schools to write an improvement plan with input from teachers and parents. That plan can pull heavily from the “unified improvement plan” every Colorado school must already submit to the state education department each year per state law.

A committee of district staff members, community members, and outside experts that could include retired district principals will evaluate the plan’s strength, as well as data about the school’s academics and culture.

Based on that evidence, plus interviews with school leaders and their supervisors, the committee will recommend an intervention to the superintendent. The superintendent will then make a recommendation to the school board, which will vote on it.

Using previous guidelines, the board voted in 2016 to close one elementary school, Gilpin Montessori, and replace two others, Greenlee and Amesse. In 2017, the only school that met the criteria was a charter school that decided on its own to close.

Under the new process, the board could still vote to close or replace a school that earned back-to-back red ratings. But it has other options, too. It could decide to put the school on a “one-year performance plan,” meaning the school would have a year to show improvement. Or it could choose a “two-year performance plan with one-year monitoring,” which would give the school two years to improve with a formal progress check after one year.

Those same options, ranging from a two-year plan to closure, would also apply to schools that earned an orange rating and then a red one. In that way, the new guidelines are harsher than the old ones, which required two years of orange ratings before a red rating.

The new guidelines also call for the board to intervene in a whole other set of schools: those whose ratings drop from one of the top three colors on the scale — blue, green, or yellow — down to red in a single year. Schools with such a “precipitous drop” would be put on either a two-year or a one-year performance plan, but they wouldn’t face closure or replacement.

Some board members struggled at first to understand the new rules. In explaining them, Cobián and Bacon referred to a graphic that illustrates the changes. Here’s the graphic:

Source: Denver Public Schools

The decision-making timeline is quicker for schools with multiple years of low ratings than it is for those that experienced a precipitous drop. Schools with multiple years of low ratings have until Nov. 12 to submit their improvement plans. The evaluation committee is scheduled to make its recommendations in early December, and the board is set to vote Dec. 20.

The schools in that category this year include two district-run schools, Stedman Elementary School and Lake Middle School, and one charter middle school, Compass Academy.

Schools that experienced a drop in ratings this year have until Dec. 10 to submit their plans. Recommendations are due in early January and the board is set to vote Jan. 24.

Those schools include three charters — STRIVE Prep – Excel High School, Girls Athletic Leadership High School, and DSST: Cole Middle School — and four district-run schools: John F. Kennedy, West Leadership Academy, and Collegiate Preparatory Academy high schools, and McGlone Academy, which serves students from preschool through eighth grade.

A school program developed by McGlone leaders was actually chosen last year to take over low-performing Amesse Elementary, which was one of two schools the board voted to replace under previous guidelines. McGlone was rated yellow last year but fell to red this year.

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School