Teachers organizing against ASD ‘want to do something radical’

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Teachers held signs protesting the ASD takeover during a community meeting at Denver Elementary

Dozens of teachers are organizing in an attempt to stop the state-run Achievement School District from taking over more underperforming schools, a state-led strategy they say is flawed and has largely failed to improve student achievement.

The Shelby County Teachers Coalition plans to protest at several upcoming meetings, at which the local school board will make crucial decisions about what to do next year with its lowest performing schools. Options include closing schools, expanding Shelby County Schools’ own efforts to turn around low-performing schools —  known as the iZone  — or pulling several hundred students from schools co-located with ASD schools.

Coalition leaders said they oppose ending school colocations because endless changes are disruptive to students and parents.

The group is operating outside the Memphis Shelby County Teachers Association. “They’re supposed to be doing what we’re doing,” one of the members said.

“We want to do something radical but we have to be strategic because they (the ASD) are strategic,” said one of the group’s founders. Several of the group’s members spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared losing their jobs.

This flyer was placed on attendees' cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.
This flyer was placed on attendees’ cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.

While parents and teachers have protested the takeover process in prior years, this year’s protests have been particularly hostile and well-organized, drawing media attention and politicians’ support.  At a series of meetings last week organized by the ASD, teachers passed out glossy pamphlets comparing their schools’ test scores to those of charter schools. They also fed questions to students and parents to ask charter organizations. When the charter officials attempted to answer the questions, teachers frequently shouted them down.

That especially frustrated ASD and charter officials who said the teachers were drowning out the parents’ voices as well.

It’s hard to forecast what sort of impact an organized effort against the ASD might have. The state district’s ability to take over and operate schools academically ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent, or to hand them over to independently-run charter organizations, is protected by state law.

But after years of mixed academic results in ASD schools, an SCS board members said recently they will push to change that law in this upcoming legislative session. It’s an effort the teacher coalition’s leaders said in interviews they will get behind.

Almost a full third of the district’s schools performed so poorly in recent years that they qualify to be taken over by the ASD. The ASD plans to take over several more schools next year.

ASD officials said that while they have had growing pains, they have also seen successes and their presence has spurred rapid improvement in the traditional public schools.  They’ve said this year’s “matching process” incorporated SCS officials’ input and considered a slew of other factors that they predicted will lead to future success.

“We have an incredibly high bar for authorizing our charters, and the only operators going through matching are those with proven results in Memphis or other cities, or new operators with proven results as educators,” said Elliot Smalley, the district’s chief of staff said in an email Wednesday.

The teacher coalition is made up of a core group of teachers from schools that have been part of the ASD takeover process since the state legislature created the district in 2012.  Over the years, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat, they have studied the law that created the ASD, the state’s charter laws, and the ASD’s existing schools’ academic records.  They have also spoken with several teachers, parents, and students who currently work at ASD schools or who have left ASD schools.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD's chief of staff
Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff

The group argues that dramatic budget cuts by Shelby County Schools in recent years have resulted in large class sizes, few extra-curricular activities and outdated textbooks. These cuts are especially acute at the district’s neediest schools, where a disproportionate number of students qualify for special education, are hungry, and whose parents lack the time or wherewithal to promote their children’s academic success.

To compare these schools’ test scores to suburban or rural schools with more stable environments and resources is simply unfair, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat.  Further, teachers said, for the state to intervene and hand the schools over to charter schools and make teachers reapply for their jobs at the schools causes more chaos in already chaotic environments.

The coalition leaders pointed out that several of the schools the ASD has taken directly over have performed worse than they were performing when they were operated by Shelby County Schools.  However, some of the schools the ASD has turned over to charters have performed much better.

“We appreciate the (teacher) coalition’s emphasis on results—that’s the essence of this work, ensuring students learn and succeed,” the ASD’s Smalley said.  “It’s far too early to draw major conclusions about our results—we’ve only run schools for two years and two-thirds of our schools were in just their first year last year—but if you look at our first neighborhood charter schools matched with neighborhood priority schools (two years of data), they’re showing real signs of promise, and they’re doing considerably better than the schools under consideration for matching.”

The group said this year’s takeover process is especially confusing. Teachers said when two charter organizations pulled out of the process last week because of capacity concerns, it left the school communities with which they were going to be matched with confused, demoralized, and uncertain about their future. But coalition members said the pullout “energized” the activists.

The ASD plans to announce which schools it will take over in the beginning of December.

Several dozen teachers have expressed interest in joining the group in recent days and the founders say they plan to eventually reach out to parents and community activists, too.  They’re keeping other plans under wraps right now.

The ASD, meanwhile, is moving forward with its plans to engage community members and parents.

“So much of this conversation is right—people asking great questions, voicing support for their schools, and expressing deep emotions about education, schools, and community,” ASD superintendent Chris Barbic said in an e-mail to his community Monday. “We don’t believe authentic community engagement is a neat and tidy process.  Not if it’s done right.  It’s totally understandable that last week’s meetings spurred people’s emotions and generated good, hard questions. We commit to standing with communities and, together with our operators, answering these questions and listening to parents’ input.”


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.