A Hard Bargain

Incoming Boys and Girls principal gets big bonus, option to return to old school

PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

The veteran principal tapped to rescue troubled Boys and Girls High School will receive a $25,000 bonus for taking on the tough assignment, officials confirmed Tuesday. But in an unusual arrangement, he will still play an important role at the successful school he led for over a decade — and where he has the option of returning next year.

Michael Wiltshire, the new principal of Boys and Girls, has told parents that he will continue to spend at least 20 percent of his time focused on Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, the Crown Heights school he helped raise to prominence over the past 13 years. Chancellor Carmen Fariña told parents that Wiltshire will take on a new title at Medgar Evers — “master principal.”

“I will be there every day really,” Wiltshire told Chalkbeat, adding that he would offer oversight and input on important matters. “Medgar Evers is my heart.”

Wiltshire’s official title at Boys and Girls is “executive principal,” a position that comes with a $25,000 bonus. Former Chancellor Joel Klein established the role in 2008 as a way to draw seasoned principals to ailing schools, but the school-improvement strategy was largely abandoned just two years later. The prestigious position typically requires a three-year commitment, but Wiltshire appears to have negotiated the option to return full time to his former school after just one year, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

That escape clause, and his dual leadership roles — rare, if not unheard of, among school leaders — reflect the lengths to which the city has gone to secure a new leader for Boys and Girls, a school that netted three straight F’s on its school-progress reports under its previous principal, who resigned abruptly last month. It also reflects Wiltshire’s commitment to Medgar Evers, where he has earned acclaim during his long tenure as principal.

“That was one of the options they negotiated with him,” said Al Vann, a former city councilman and member of the Boys and Girls advisory board. “He wanted to maintain a relationship with Medgar Evers.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman insisted that Wiltshire is not the principal of both schools, and noted that an assistant principal, Angella Smith, has been named acting principal of Medgar Evers. But Wiltshire and Fariña both assured parents at an emergency meeting last Thursday at Medgar Evers that Wiltshire would remain active at the school as a “master principal,” according to a parent who attended the meeting.

Boys and Girls High School is one of the city's lowest performing schools, which received three straight F's on its most recent school-progress reports.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School is one of the city’s lowest performing schools, which received three straight F’s on its most recent school-progress reports.

Wiltshire explained that he would spend about 75 to 80 percent of his time at Boys and Girls and the rest at Medgar Evers, according to the parent, Tricia Mecklembourg. (He repeated that estimate during a meeting with Boys and Girls parents Monday evening, according to an attendee.) Fariña explained to the Medgar Evers parents that, “This has never been done before, so they are working out all the logistics,” Mecklembourg added.

“He’s definitely still at Medgar,” said Mecklembourg, a former parent association president who praised Wiltshire. “That’s his mission and that’s his vision.”

Caster Hall, president of Boys and Girls’ parent association and brother of the school’s outspoken ex-principal, said he was willing to give Wiltshire a chance in his new dual role. But he also hinted at the challenges the arrangement could create. For instance, he said he would refuse to refer to Wiltshire as “executive principal” in letters to parents to avoid confusing them, and would bring up Wiltshire’s option to leave after one year at the school’s next leadership meeting.

“I don’t want the kids to think that they’re going to lose him once they get to know him,” Hall said.

Wiltshire, a former Boys and Girls teacher, said his appointment would allow the schools to try out a new peer-support system. Medgar Evers staff could share their curriculum materials, help coach the struggling school’s teachers, and even allow some Boys and Girls students to take classes at their school, he said. That potential partnership echoes a proposal the city made in a recent federal grant application, where it said struggling schools would be matched with higher-performing “sister schools.”

“Mr. Wiltshire has proven to be an effective principal and he’ll continue to work closely with his former school community to share best practices and support where necessary,” said the education department spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

As head of Boys and Girls, Wiltshire will try to reproduce the model that has enabled Medgar Evers to more than double its enrollment over the past decade while achieving a remarkable 97 percent graduation rate, he said Monday. (Boys and Girls’ graduation rate, by contrast, was 44 percent.)

The grades 6-to-12 school features extended days, Saturday classes, mandatory summer school, and strong sports and arts programs, Wiltshire said. The middle-school students study Mandarin and take some of the state exams required to graduate high school. Many of the high school students enroll in Advanced Placement classes — about 400 of the roughly 930 students took AP exams last year, Wiltshire said — and some earn enough college credits to graduate with two-year college degrees, he said.

The demanding academic program is made possible at least in part by the school’s admission policy. Incoming sixth-graders are accepted based on their state test scores and entrance-exam results, and the high school gives priority to students who attended Medgar Evers’ middle school. About 100 of this year’s 240 freshmen came from within the school, Wiltshire said.

Some parents and staff at Boys and Girls have already questioned whether that model will take hold in a school that accepts all applicants and whose poor reputation keeps it from attracting many high-achieving students. Last year, about 22 percent of Boys and Girls students had disabilities and 16 percent had been held back before. At Medgar Evers, just 3 percent of students had disabilities in 2013 and only 1.4 percent had previously been held back.

“A lot of our kids aren’t the kids he would have taken at his school,” a Boys and Girls teacher said.

Wiltshire said that when he took over Medgar Evers, the majority of students entered below grade level. He also said many students come from similar backgrounds as those at Boys and Girls, though he acknowledged that they often have stronger academic records.

How the city will measure Wiltshire’s success is unclear, since the administration has yet to release its plans for struggling schools. The state, which has designated Boys and Girls as “out of time,” expects the school to meet certain goals this year, possibly including increased attendance and graduation rates, Wiltshire said.

A state education department spokesman said the school will be evaluated on “a wide variety of metrics” and that deadlines to meet targets are still being worked out with the city. The state can order districts to close struggling schools that do not improve within a certain period, said the spokesman, Tom Dunn.

Wiltshire said he hopes to help the school meet the state’s targets and restore its status as a “premier high school.”

“It’s a steep challenge,” he said. “But I’m going to try my best.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.