Student Voice

Students walk out of Memphis school demanding to know why principal and teacher were fired

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School protest administrators firing a teacher and principal.

About 30 students walked out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning, three months after school administrators fired the principal, and days after firing a beloved teacher.

Unease has filled the North Memphis charter school since the staffing changes. Teachers have quit, and students and parents do not believe they have received clear answers from administrators about the firings.

According to internal emails, principal Reginald Williams was fired because of the school’s poor performance on 2018 state tests — the same computerized test state lawmakers tried to block from negatively impacting teachers, students, and schools after major technical glitches.

Three student leaders gathered parent permission slips from classmates and walked out shortly after 9 a.m. with chants of “We want answers!” and “We want justice!” But teachers discouraged others from following, students said, while administrators lined the hallways and doors. Eventually, more students joined in protest as school leaders called an assembly to address student concerns. Student leaders say they still don’t have the answers they were looking for.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, Kiahna Noel, Semaj Buckhalter, and Markayla Crawford led a student protest at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning.

“When he was our principal, the school was OK. The school was good. And now we don’t have a principal and the school is going up in chaos,” said Cherelle Bledsoe, a senior who has attended the school since sixth grade. “Teachers are quitting because it’s unprofessional, because it’s not organized.”

“He was a good principal,” said Tamia Kerr, a senior who came back to Memphis Academy on Tuesday morning for the protest after transferring to another high school. “They made it sound like he up and left, but they fired him.”

Talya Garrett, one of the interim co-principals, declined to comment on the students’ concerns. Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, said he supported students expressing themselves — even in protest.

“In this world we live in and on a day like today where the vote is so precious, it’s important to hear the voices while still encouraging the continuation of the academic instruction,” he said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Johnson appointed two administrators, Garrett and Trent Watson, to share the responsibility of interim principal after firing Williams. The school serves about 420 students.

Parents and their supporters flooded a board meeting last month, where it was revealed Williams had not resigned, though Johnson said the two had come to a “mutual agreement.” Patricia Ange, an ACT prep teacher, supported Williams at the meeting and was fired Friday.

“She is the best teacher at MAHS, and I’m going to stand my ground for her,” said Kiahna Noel, a senior who organized the protest. “She brought our ACT scores up, she encourages people who want to drop out to continue. Half of these kids going to college because of Ms. Ange, and she going to get fired for speaking her mind? That’s not right.”

When Chalkbeat asked about claims of teachers locking doors and asked for details about teachers and students leaving for other schools, Johnson directed questions to the network’s lawyer, Florence Johnson. She said no teachers have quit and no students have withdrawn. She declined to respond to the students’ allegations.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Nicole Smith shares text messages from her daughter, which prompted her to come to the school.

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift held a small protest at the school earlier Tuesday morning and returned when leaders heard students had planned a walkout. Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director, has a granddaughter at the school, and said Memphis Lift wants Ange and Williams to come back to the school and for Johnson to be fired.

“We’re going to stand out here every day until every parent knows what’s going on,” she told one mother dropping off her student at the school.

Nicole Smith came to the school after her daughter texted her that students were being held in class, “so we won’t be heard because so many kids asking for answers.” If things don’t change soon, she plans to withdraw her daughter, a senior, from the school.

“If the top is good and strong, everybody else will be strong,” Smith said. “When you have a weak leader, everything else will fall. He [Williams] was a great leader because he knew how to be firm and a good educator at the same time.”

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.