look up

Memphis high school’s prized planetarium still needs upgrades, but students are already fascinated by what it can do

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Principal Tisha Durrah, left, inspects a part of the planetarium that projects constellations and planets onto the large white dome screen at Craigmont High School.

Keshawn Glover remembers hearing his dad talk about field trips to Craigmont High School’s planetarium decades ago, but last week the high school senior got to experience the school’s crown jewel for himself.

Sitting back in chairs built in the 1970s, Glover leaned back with his class to watch a video that took them deep into the inner workings of a plant cell on a large immersive dome-shaped screen that spreads out above and around them.

“It feels like you’re in a roller coaster,” said Glover, a senior. “I was just amazed because it was my first time seeing it work full speed.”

The planetarium, nestled behind a door near the school’s gymnasium, shut down in 2010 after a longtime instructor retired. The equipment languished, but last week, $100,000 in restorations were completed. The work still isn’t done — a stronger audio system and better lighting are still needed. In addition, some of the features are still analog and not digital, and the huge screen desperately needs cleaning. But the school’s prized possession is up and running.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Craigmont High School senior Keshawn Glover, left, with science teacher Wayne Oellig at the planetarium’s control center.

The planetarium is more than just a nice feature, educators say. It helps garner student interest in careers they might not have known about before, such as astronomy and aerospace engineering.

“I don’t feel like our kids are exposed to all the opportunities out there for them,” said Wayne Oellig, a science teacher at Craigmont High School who has been the school’s point person on finding ways to connect curriculum to the planetarium.

“The space industry is really growing now,” he continued. “I tell my students, ‘You might be able to have a job in space when you’re older.’”

Paying for the project has been a collaborative effort. Shelby County Schools covered the startup operational costs from money allocated to school board members to fund projects of their choice. Teresa Jones, whose district includes Craigmont High, also galvanized other board members to use some of their school project money. Finally, alumni of the Raleigh-area high school continue to raise money to cover the nearly $25,000 needed to bring the theater up to 21st-century standards.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Planet rotation around the sun are projected through here to the large white dome screen.

Oellig compared the planetarium experience to the 1990s cartoon TV show “Magic School Bus,” where a class of students learned from experience — from venturing inside a human body to understand a cold, to traveling to the Amazon River to study frogs. “It’s kinda like Ms. Frizzle, but all around you.”


From our archives: With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students


Oellig said the planetarium’s benefits extend far beyond science. History teachers can show videos designed for the giant screen that take students onto a historic battlefield as if they were there. A Spanish teacher wants to show what the night sky would have looked like to ancient Mayans and how those constellations informed culture.

And that matters to students like Glover.

Usually, “we’re either looking at a textbook or a presentation on a projector,” he said. “But to get out of the classroom but still be in a learning environment would really capture our attention, whatever subject it is.

“It will make students even more interested in it. And the more interested we are in it, the better our grades are and we’ll do better on tests,” he said.

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.