Tennessee

Community advisory board recommends charters for newest ASD schools

A community advisory group for the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) recommended Monday which charter school operators should take over four of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

The group’s recommendations, based on discussions with the charter schools and input from parents and students, will help determine the ASD administration’s plans for seven Memphis schools, set to be announced this Thursday.

At stake is the future of those schools, all ranked in the bottom five percent of the state academically and situated in high-poverty, predominantly black neighborhoods. For years, they have been run by Memphis and Shelby County Schools, but a 2010 law allows state officials to remove the schools from the district, replace their leadership and staff, and let the new leaders set their budgets and curricula in hopes of improving their performance. Most of the schools in the ASD will be run by charter schools operators, which are publicly funded but operated independently.

The ASD is being closely watched by states around the country interested in turning around low-performing schools. But some community  members and teachers have described its intervention as invasive, disruptive and ineffective.

The AAC recommended that Carver High School be run by Green Dot, Springhill Elementary be matched with Promise Academy, Coleman Elementary be matched with Aspire, Westwood be matched with Freedom Prep and Fairley High School not be matched with a charter operator.

The AAC’s recommendations are not final. The ASD will announce final pairings this coming Thursday.

“We realized there’s a need to get authentic input about decisions about which charter partner would turn around which school,” said Margo Roen, the new schools director for the state-run district. She said the process was inspired by community engagement practices in New Orleans and Denver.

The AAC’s recommendations outline why each “match” was made, but also lay out potential concerns for each site, including declining enrollment at Carver and lack of transportation options for Springhill students.

“The needs of each school are different,” said Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff. “And operators have different preferences.”

Two schools, Denver and South Side, were on the list at the outset of the process but not matched to any operator. Artesian Community Schools, which had been in conversations to run South Side, will not run a school in the 2014-15 school year.

“It’s about making the right decision, no matter what people may have invested,” Smalley said.

Some matches were determined before last night: Frayser Community Schools will run Frayser High, and Gestalt will run Wooddale Middle School. 

The all-volunteer AAC, whose members serve six-month terms, was designed to communicate community concerns to the ASD, to explain ASD policies to parents and community members, and to recommend which school should be run by whom. 

“We’re a liaison between the community, charter school, and neighborhood,” said member Omari Faulkner. “Once it’s announced that a school will be taken over, we want to hear, what do they feel and how are they going through the process.”

This is the ASD’s second year running schools. In September, nine schools were put on a shortlist for take-over. The district and the AAC ran an informational fair and hosted a series of community meetings and conversations over the course of the fall. Parents had the opportunity to learn about the charter operators’ curriculum, extracurricular activities and philosophies.

The matching process surfaced concerns about schools’ futures even as it brought the schools a step closer to being under the auspices of the ASD.

A parent at South Side Middle said she feared the ASD was out to privatize schools and that beloved teachers would lose jobs. Many of the district’s teachers and top officials come to Memphis from elsewhere in the country.

A parent from Wooddale Middle School submitted a petition to the Shelby County School Board last month saying she and some 600 other parents did not want their school to be taken over by the state.

“For a lot of educators, it can come as a shock,” Faulkner said. “They’re often wary of the takeover model. Sometimes that can trickle down to students, parents, community leaders.  This is a very new process.  We don’t work for the ASD, but we’re here to provide that bridge when they have a question.”

At Fairley, community members disputed the test scores that landed the school on the state priority list in the first place, said Katrice Peterson, a member of the AAC. The school’s new strategic plan and principal were cited as reasons to not match it with any charter schools this year.

At Carver, “the first thoughts were, do we keep the name, do we keep the traditions, our mascots? Will we still be Carver?” said Mitchell Saddler, a member of the AAC. The school’s low enrollment means it might be closed by Shelby County Schools if it is not taken over by the ASD.

Megan Quaile, the vice president of expansion for Green Dot, a California-based charter operator planning to open its first school in Memphis, said, “I like the concept of a lot of engaging the community and having them really understand us and us understand them before any final decisions are made.”

Both AAC members and charter operators complained that they weren’t allowed into the schools to get a better idea of what a typical school day is like.

A spokesperson for Shelby County Schools didn’t respond to questions about the members’ access to the schools.

The AAC held many of their meetings at nearby community centers and churches.

AAC member Saddler said navigating conversations with those currently in schools, whose jobs will be affected by the change, was tricky. As of last week, he had not discussed the plans for Carver’s future with its current principal: “I have no idea how to start the conversation.”

Representatives from the affected schools declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

The ASD runs 15 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville, but plans to run more than 50. Its goal is to improve schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state until they are in the top 25 percent.

Of the 83 schools in Tennessee eligible for takeover, 69 were in Memphis.

Correction: The article originally misstated the name of Wooddale Middle School.

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.