what's next?

These Memphis schools now risk a state takeover

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Hawkins Mill Elementary play a math game during class.

While Memphis mostly received good news when the state listed its most underachieving schools last week, at least five Shelby County schools appear to be at risk of state takeover.

The move, the most drastic consequence the state can impose to try to fix education, inspires dread in its targets — but studies have shown it has not been effective in raising student achievement.

Shelby County Schools and Tennessee Department of Education officials have declined to name which schools they might take over or close. But a look at the state’s new criteria for when to step in to improve schools provides some clues about which ones are under consideration.

Shelby County Schools has 11 schools that meet the state’s criteria, but that doesn’t mean they are a shoo-in for state takeover. The most vulnerable are:

  • Geeter K-8
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Northwest Prep Academy
  • Wooddale High

Geeter recently shifted into the district’s Empowerment Zone, a program to zero in on student achievement. That designation may shield it from state action, because the program has succeeded in lifting a few schools off the state’s priority list of worst-performing schools.

Six other schools that meet the criteria belong to Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which is designed to improve achievement and has done a better job of boosting test scores than state-run schools have. Because of that, it’s unlikely they would be taken over. The schools are:

  • American Way Middle
  • Hamilton High
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Trezevant High
  • Westwood High

If taken over, a school will leave the Memphis district and land in the state-run Achievement School District, which turns many of its schools over to charter operators. But in six years, the state-run district has not produced the results promised, and researchers say its schools are no better off than other low-performing schools that received no help.

Schools become vulnerable to takeover or closure, according to the state’s plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education, if they have:

  • Two repeat appearances on the priority list of struggling schools, which the state determines every three years
  • A growth score of 3 or less on the state’s 5-point scale of academic improvement, known as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

The rating of schools has been complicated by last spring’s online testing blunders. In response to the widespread snafus, lawmakers prevented the scores from being used as the basis for any state takeovers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her classroom tour of the state.

In assessing schools at risk, Chalkbeat looked at growth scores — a measure of schools’ year-over-year improvement — from the 2016-17 school year. Since those scores didn’t change much in 2017-18, the same schools would likely be on the state’s list.

Before making any decisions, the state will review other information, such as how neighboring schools are doing, how the school compares with others statewide, the percentage of students graduating, and student enrollment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said recently the state will decide on schools’ fate in the next month or so.

Any schools the state takes over will join 28 other state-operated campuses in Memphis, or about one-fifth of schools in the local district.

In planning how to improve schools, the state has vowed to collaborate more with local districts than it has in the past. That previous approach led to frequent protests, mistrust, and racial tensions as charter operators with higher proportions of white staff took over schools in black neighborhoods.

This year, state officials have visited schools on the watchlist to talk about strategies to improve.

What we know about the schools most at risk

The state already flagged American Way Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary in February as schools that needed the most help. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the state recommended forceful action. Earlier, the state recommended (but by law could not force) closing Hawkins Mill, but Shelby County Schools declined.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.

The state also recommended in February that American Way Middle join the Achievement School District. Shelby County Schools responded by moving the school into the Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, which imposes conditions such as a longer school day, signing and renewal bonuses for high-performing teachers, plus community resources for students from low-income families. That usually adds up to about $600,000 per school. The state still may take action on the school, but has not decided yet.

Geeter K-8 is also a likely candidate for state takeover, but recent changes may spare it. In February the state flagged it as needing improvement. Shelby County Schools was already in the process of transferring Geeter into the Empowerment Zone, a cluster of neighborhood schools that employs strategies such as collaboration across schools on lesson plans so teachers can learn from each other.

The Empowerment Zone uses college-student tutors to reduce the adult-to-student ratio in the classroom. This year, the district transformed Geeter, formerly a middle school, into a K-8 by adding elementary students from Manor Lake Elementary.

Georgian Hills Middle and Wooddale High are especially vulnerable to a state takeover. Neither are in the iZone, but are a part of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of closing them.

Principals at the 19 “critical focus” schools get about $300,000 extra to fund improvement plans developed with parents and staff. The state has not indicated whether or not the resulting strategies count as a strong enough intervention, but said in February the local district would lead in creating a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration with the state.

The state deemed that Northwest Prep Academy had improved enough last year to escape the priority list, but the school reappeared on the list this year because of its low graduation rate. The state has not designated Northwest school as an alternative school, but it serves students referred from other schools for behavior or academic issues. It’s unlikely the state would take over this school.

Complicating any plans for the state to take over schools are recent dismal test results from the Achievement School District. Four of the six original schools that the state took over in 2012 remain on the priority school list for their poor performance. So far, McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have stood by the state-run district, though they have conceded the district’s goals were too ambitious.

And with a new governor set to take the helm in January, the future of the district is uncertain.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.