New direction

Aspire Memphis plans to spin off into its own charter organization, separate from the California group that founded it

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Aspire students work on a project in March 2015. The four Aspire Memphis schools will transition to a new, independent charter organization.

After months of deliberation, California-based Aspire has decided to spin off its Memphis schools into a new, independent charter school organization.

The four schools – and their 1,600 students – would officially transition at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year if the plan comes to fruition.

Aspire Memphis Superintendent Nickalous Manning would remain the leader of the four schools and work with Aspire to spin them off over the next 12-18 months, Aspire officials announced at a public meeting Thursday held in California.

The Aspire network was one of the first outside charter groups recruited to Memphis to join the state-run Achievement School District five years ago and now runs three schools in the turnaround district. Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and oversees 36 schools there.

Aspire’s board voted unanimously Thursday to pull out of Aspire East Academy, Aspire Coleman Middle School, Aspire Hanley Elementary School, and Aspire Hanley Middle School, and keep them open under a new Memphis-based charter network with its own brand, board, central office, and fundraising arm.

“Nick [Manning] and I see this as the next evolution for the schools and feel excited for what lies ahead,” said Mala Batra, interim chief executive officer with the national Aspire organization. “A big piece of that fits with Nick and his leadership.”

Batra said many factors spurred the decision, including lack of academic progress and the Memphis schools’ slower-than-projected growth. Aspire originally envisioned 10 or more schools in Memphis, but the group has only opened four schools in the region since 2013.

“As we’ve talked about, our academic results are not where we want them to be, where they can and will be,” Batra said.

“We know since we went to Memphis that there is a perception of Aspire and several other organizations as having an outsider status, and we’ve been trying to integrate into that community authentically since we’ve been there,” she added.

Manning told board members that he was confident his local team is up to the task, and that meetings with parents over the last two months about the potential change have been largely positive.

“The locally operated model allows us to be more nimble,” Manning said. “Over the past seven years, our organization has put a tremendous amount of support [into Memphis]. Because of that, we now have the opportunity to move forward in this new work.”

Part of moving forward will be addressing a $2 million operating deficit. But Batra and board members emphasized that they believed the spin-off was the best way for the Memphis schools to become more financially stable. Batra said they had verbal commitments from Memphis-based and national funders to support the new charter school operation.

Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation in Memphis and Aspire board member, said he believes the change might open more doors politically.

“The thinking of some is that this is an outside group and not a group from Memphis that’s really concerned about our kids,” Boyd said. “While I know that’s not true, it’s hard to change perception on the part of some leaders locally. ”

A task force of national and Memphis-based Aspire leaders, as well as outside consultants, was created to analyze the future of Memphis schools and made the recommendation to the board. The green light on the recommendation comes about two months after Aspire’s national board met in Memphis.

At the Nov. 2 meeting, the task force was looking at three other options, including merging the schools with an existing charter organization or creating an Aspire “franchise.”

Batra said on Thursday that after November, the task force’s decision came down to either spinning off or continuing its governance in the Memphis region with major changes. The group zoned in on the spin-off model as the best option, she added.

The recommendation was met without any serious pushback from board members or Aspire staff. Memphis principal Monique Cincore, who participated in the meeting by video, said that during the November visit, she was most concerned about the option of merging into another charter organization.

“As I got additional information on how we can operate, it became clearer to me,” Cincore said. “I love my Aspire team in California… After sitting down, talking, weighing options, and looking at the needs of students here, it helped me to feel better about transitioning.”

Cincore leads Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school, under the local Shelby County Schools. Aspire also runs Coleman Middle School, one of only nine schools in the Achievement School District that is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of schools, according to the state Department of Education. Aspire Hanley Elementary School also improved enough last year to come off of the state’s list of troubled schools, called the “priority list.”

Aspire isn’t the first national charter organization to spin off its turnaround Memphis schools. Memphis Scholars, which runs three schools in the state district, previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies. Project GRAD USA pulled out of Tennessee’s turnaround district and closed its school.

National board chair Jonathan Garfinkel said he was “deeply conflicted” about the decision, but ultimately thought the task force made a compelling case.

“In other situations I’ve seen, leaving a big organization to plan a new one tends to be harder than people think,” Garfinkel said. “It tends to be driven by ego and a sense of independence, and I don’t get the slightest hint of that in this process. The local team came to a point of view that this is the right choice for students and families.”


Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.


Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.