Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system. The city is also home to two state-run schools placed on priority status.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Or it a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.