a thousand cuts

Saved from "turnaround," Grady faces new threats to existence

Grady Principal Geraldine Maione stands in front of a mural painted by students in a "transformation"-funded arts program.

In a normal year, William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School would be preparing to enroll a ninth-grade class of about 350 students. But this hasn’t been a normal year.

The high school directory distributed to eighth-graders in September listed the school as having a “D” on its city progress report, even though Grady’s 2010 grade would be updated to a B in October. In December, the school’s federal funding was cut off after the city and teachers union failed to agree on new teacher evaluations. The next month, Mayor Bloomberg surprised school staff by announcing that Grady would be one of 33 schools to close and reopen under an overhaul program known as “turnaround.”

Then, in April, after months of raucous protests and appeals to the state’s top education leaders, Grady was yanked from the turnaround list, along with six other schools that had top grades on their city progress reports. The school would open this fall as usual.

Except that it won’t. Grady has just 150 students on its ninth-grade roster for the fall, and fewer students means fewer dollars to spend — in Grady’s case, about $3.5 million. Officials at Grady are planning to cut teachers loose, cancel after-school programs, and dismantle some of the supports that Principal Geraldine Maione said helped the school improve enough to stay open.

No longer will there be after-school clubs in robotics and chess, and teachers won’t be able to be paid to work an extended-day program for students who want to take additional courses in music and dance. With a career and technical education focus, Grady has never been able to offer a full complement of arts courses, so the clubs offered students a rare chance for a rounded education, Maione said.

Those programs were funded with millions of dollars in federal funds that the school received in 2010 and 2011 to support “transformation,” a less aggressive federally prescribed overhaul process. The funds, which were supposed to continue through next year, were essential to lifting the school’s performance statistics, Maione said. The four-year graduation rate has hovered around 50 percent in recent years, but in Maione’s first year at the school, the school earned heaps of extra credit from the city as more students made faster progress.

After early uncertainly, Department of Education officials now say they intend to replace transformation funds for the nine schools that had been receiving them and are no longer set for turnaround. But schools haven’t seen their budgets for next year, so Maione said she isn’t counting on the extra funds yet. And the $1.4 million in transformation funds would not come close to making up for the enrollment drop. Two hundred students would bring about $3.5 million to the school.

“We still haven’t heard anything about the funding, but for me it doesn’t matter,” Maione said last week. “Half of my staff is going to be gone. I can’t start anything new.”

It’s an issue that many of the schools wrapped up in the turnaround saga are anticipating. Indeed, enrollment is down at 40 percent of the 17 schools set to undergo turnaround this summer, according to the Department of Education. (An equal number are set to see enrollment rise.) Officials declined to provide details about the size of the enrollment changes or about enrollment at schools such as Grady that are no longer set to undergo turnaround.

For many of the schools, enrollment has been slipping for years. But it can’t have helped that the mayor himself identified them as struggling in January and held a series of high-profile public hearings and even raucous demonstrations — even as eighth-graders were finalizing and refining their high school applications.

A schedule of Grady's clubs and activities this year. Only a few of the activities are likely to continue next year amid an enrollment decline.

Declining enrollment costs schools hard dollars — and it also keeps them on the city’s closure radar. The Department of Education frequently cites student demand as a key consideration when deciding which schools to shutter and replace.

But the alternative to losing students isn’t always appealing, either. Students who are new to the city, transferring, or returning from incarceration or drop-out get assigned to whatever high schools have open seats. Several schools that have landed on the chopping block have argued — unsuccessfully — that large numbers of the needy “over-the-counter” students have doomed them to poor performance.

For Grady, there have been a few bright spots. The school’s “Quality Review,” which had been cancelled when Grady first landed on the turnaround roster, was rescheduled — for the first two days back from the Memorial Day break, at a time when high schools have already turned from regular instruction to prep for this month’s Regents exams. Maione was able to convince department officials to jettison the middle school administrator set to review the school in favor of someone with high school experience, then to shift the date to the fall.

But for the most part, school officials are hunkering down for a rough landing this fall. Maione is spending the waning days of the school year helping junior teachers land interviews at other schools. Her top assistants are concerned about the toll the fight for survival has taken on her and fear that she won’t return in the fall, even though she has promised to.

“My greatest worry is the principal,” said Spencer Holder, an assistant principal who said the school had become a more collaborative and student-oriented place to work since Maione’s 2010 arrival.

He added, “She’s been doing turnaround without turnaround. … But she has planted the type of seeds where we will be able to sustain what she put under her tutelage.”

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:


Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: