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.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Educational Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. Amy Tsai, who is Asian and a member of the District 75 Community Education Council, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

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. All the leading mayoral candidates were invited, but only Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

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.