school snapshots

Sharpe Elementary sets high expectations to increase student literacy by 60 percent

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Students in Memphis help each other with their vocabulary at Sharpe Elementary, one of 85 Tennessee schools recognized by the state Monday for test score growth in the 2014-15 school year.

More than 70 percent of Sharpe Elementary’s students read below their grade level.

It was a troubling statistic for principal Gary Zimmerman and his staff.

In the last 12 years he’s been the principal, his school has met its academic goals, but Zimmerman said it’s not acceptable that barely 30 percent of his students are proficient or advanced readers.

At the beginning of the school year, more than 70 percent of the school’s kindergarteners and second graders were not reading at their grade level, and more than 60 percent of first and third graders were below grade level.  Nearly all of the schools’ fourth and fifth graders were not reading at their grade level.

The push to turnaround the school is evident in the work that goes on in the classrooms before and after school and even on the weekends. It’s hard for anyone visiting the school to miss the vocabulary-covered walls that resemble a never-ending sentence.

Sharpe’s story is only a snapshot of Shelby County Schools’ overall push to address the district’s literacy problem. According to a study of third-grade readers across the district, 61 percent of the students were not reading on grade level. District administrators and board members are concerned about this problem because education research has shown if a student is not reading at grade level by the third grade, the student will not graduate high school on time, according to a national study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The study says the dropout rates are highest for the low and below-basic readers with 23 percent of the children dropping out of high school or failing to finish on time. The dropout rate for children with basic reading skills is 9 percent and 4 percent for proficient readers.

Memphis is one of the least literate cities in the country, according to a literacy survey conducted by Literacy Mid-South.

Almost a third of adults read at or below a third-grade level and 41 percent of adults have less than high school diploma or GED, according to Literacy Mid-South.

“We’re fighting demographics,” Zimmerman said. “Some of our children leave our schools and they go home and there’s not a lot of help.  We can only do so much in the seven hours that we have them, so there’s a gap all of the time.”

Sharpe Elementary’s goal is to increase student literacy from 28.1 to 45 percent – a 60 percent jump – on this year’s annual state tests.

The school’s goal is aggressive and higher than the state’s target, which is 32.5 percent of students reading on a proficient or advanced level.

Zimmerman, Sharpe’s principal,  said considering the progress students have made so far, higher expectations are achievable.

Students are monitored regularly to gauge their progress.

This month’s testing showed that 70 percent of kindergarteners and fourth grade students reading below grade level in October decreased by 43 percent. The 60 percent of first and third graders reading below grade level decreased by 36 percent and 12 percent, respectively.  Fourth graders made significant progress as well, cutting the percentage of below basic readers from 95 percent to 54 percent.  The percentage of below basic fifth grade readers dropped from 100 to 65 percent.

Zimmerman said the progress is a reflection of the school’s efforts. 

“If you only reach for the minimum, then you get minimum results,” he said.  “Forty-five percent of students reading proficient or advanced isn’t the best when you consider half of the students are still reading  at a basic or below basic level. This is hard work and we’re doing all we can.”

In October, Sharpe Elementary started the Emerging Readers Saturday School program for students that were reading below their grade level. The program is funded with federal Title I money, which can be used for extended school day programs, Zimmerman said.

School officials couldn’t enroll the entire school in the Saturday program, so they specifically targeted students they felt needed the most immediate help.

All the students will stay in the program for the remainder of the school year and  Zimmerman is even looking into the possibility of offering a five- day, five-week  summer reading program for students.

The students spend six-hours every Saturday, even during breaks, at the school practicing reading skills.  Students receive computer instruction using a system called Istation, one-on-one and small group instruction, and they are given time to read independently.

Currently there are 22 students enrolled and there’s a growing waiting list.

The computer system, Istation, provides students with reading lessons that test their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

Stephanie Gatewood, the school’s family services specialist, is the facilitator of the program along with a classroom teacher and teacher’s assistant.

Gatewood is a former Memphis City School Board member and education researcher at the University of Memphis.  She spends her days monitoring student progress, teaching lessons, conferring with teachers and students and reaching out to parents.

Fifth-grader Chasity Coleman didn’t want to come to Saturday school, but with Gatewood and her mother’s nudge, Coleman started the program in November.

Chasity Coleman
Chasity Coleman

“Sometimes I read too fast and I don’t remember everything,” said Coleman, 11.  “Now, I know I need to read slower and focus.”

Coleman said her teachers are starting to notice an improvement in her classroom work. She’s growing to enjoy reading more and reads at least 20 minutes every night.

“I’m reading The Princess Diaries and Dork Diaries,” she said.

Gatewood said fourth grader Michael Gutierrez, another Saturday School student, is now reading on his grade level after being behind earlier in the school year.

“When I started, I didn’t like to read,” said Gutierrez, 9.  “But now I do.  I like to write, but spelling is hard.”

It’s the opposite for third grader Rolando Pastor, 8, who finds it difficult to write his sentences while spelling has become his fastest growth area.

Every day at Sharpe, students begin the day with a 90-minute reading block. Some students receive small group instruction and other students receive before- and after-school tutoring.

Rolando Pastor
Rolando Pasto
Michael Gutierrez
Michael Gutierrez

The school’s commitment to improving literacy not only prompted the start of Saturday school for Emerging Readers, but also a small library in the cafeteria.

Gatewood’s office, located in the school’s cafeteria, has several computer terminals set up for students to grab a quick lesson during lunch time.  She also has a library for students to check  out books, but not only just to read and return.

Gatewood uses a notecard system requiring students to write all of the words they didn’t know in the book, write its definition on the notecards and turn the cards in when they return the book.

If a student returns a book without any notecards sticking out, Gatewood says she’s quick to correct them.

Last week in Ikeysha Hall’s fourth grade science class, Gatewood reviewed an Istation lesson with the  students.  Students had to define several words from the lesson on marine life.

“I’m doing this work because it’s important,” Gatewood said. “We have a reading deficit, specifically  in vocabulary.  That’s why we have a school-wide push to strengthen vocabulary. Children deserve a quality education.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”