Tennessee

Exclusive: Green Dot Public Schools pulls out of Raleigh-Egypt ASD takeover

Green Dot Public Schools, a nationally-known charter school network, has backed out of an agreement with Tennessee’s Achievement School District to take over Memphis’ academically-troubled Raleigh-Egypt High School next year, Chalkbeat learned Thursday.

The decision follows a month of raucous protests from students, parents, and teachers, and strong pushback from the city’s superintendent, who said the intervention was unnecessary and disruptive.

Green Dot officials said Thursday that a lack of community buy-in would hurt the success at the school, where just one of the school’s 748 students passed the English End of Course exam last year.

“We don’t want to create a hostile environment where kids are in the middle of this,” said Megan Quaile, the executive director of Tennessee’ s Green Dot Public Schools.  “They’ve asked us to give them some time and we’re going to honor their request.”

State law allows the ASD to take over Tennessee’s worst-performing schools and directly run them or hand them over to charter schools.

Green Dot is the third operator this fall to pull out of an agreement with the ASD to take over struggling Memphis schools. Two other networks  – KIPP and Freedom Prep–pulled out of the process last month, citing concerns about their own capacity to take on more schools.

Today’s development delivers another blow to the ASD’s “matching” process. Under that process, the ASD coordinates get-to-know-you meetings and informational events between charter schools and some of the lowest performing schools in the state to help the ASD and a board of community members decide how and whether to intervene in particular schools.

Shelby County Schools board members, parents, and teachers have described the matching process as confusing, demoralizing and destructive to schools. They have also pointed out that while some schools’ test scores improved after state intervention, others have dipped, leading some board members and politicians to call for a moratorium on the ASD’s expansion.

The ASD has said the matching process is meant to build community buy-in to help schools reach the ASD’s  stated goal of taking the bottom 5 percent of schools and catapulting them into the state’s top 25 percent of schools in five years. This year’s blips have caused district officials concern but they still plan to move forward with the matching process.

“The expectation was that everybody was ready to move forward,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said Thursday.  “If we felt like they weren’t ready, then we wouldn’t have had them involved in this process.  We’re never going to force an operator to do something that they don’t want to do.”

“We’re going to go back and do an autopsy once we’re done with all this,” Barbic said. “What are some things we can do to minimize this from happening again. We want kids in priority schools to have the best shot possible at a good education.”

Just six of the 12 Memphis schools named by the ASD last month as takeover candidates are still in the takeover mix. And Green Dot still plans to take over Wooddale Middle School.  The ASD currently runs 22 schools.

When the ASD announced last month that it would take over Raleigh-Egypt High School, a sports powerhouse situated in a blue-collar neighborhood in North Memphis, politicians, board members, alumni, and community activists objected. They expressed hope that the school’s new principal, plucked from Bolton High School, would turn the school around without ASD intervention.

Raleigh Egypt principal James "Bo" Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Raleigh Egypt principal James “Bo” Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.

Principal James “Bo” Griffin publicly promoted his efforts to sweep the hallways of fights, expel the school’s trouble makers and develop a three-year academic plan with Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and Egypt Elementary that included tutoring and professional development. Egypt Elementary made some of the largest academic gains in the state this year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at a board meeting last month that he specifically asked the ASD not to take over Raleigh-Egypt High School because of the “synergy” between the high school middle school and elementary school campus.

But the ASD said Raleigh-Egypt was the only high school in the state to fall into a stringent set of takeover criteria agreed upon with Shelby County Schools.

Some schools on this year’s ASD list were only provisionally tabbed for takeover. But Raleigh-Egypt was a “direct placement” school, meaning the ASD had definitively decided to turn over the school to  Green Dot, a charter management organization that has gained national attention for turning around several tough high schools in its home state of California.

Being taken over by the ASD would interrupt the sorts of gains the school has made this year, principal Griffin said.

“I don’t really understand it as a first-year principal,” Griffin said about the takeover process. “I know the governor believes in it but I still believe it’s the people, not the programs that make a difference in schools. If there were one program, we’d all be doing it.”

Griffin also took issue with Green Dot being an out-of-state charter network, saying its staff wouldn’t understand the particular challenges of the Raleigh neighborhood, including gang violence and intense poverty.

Last year, Green Dot took over Memphis’ Fairley High School and immediately set up a task force made up of parents, teachers and community members to make decisions at the school about budget and extra-curricular activities. Despite its costs, Green Dot Schools officials retained the school’s famous high-stepping marching band and added some sports programs back that had been dormant for several years.

That sort of community buy-in is crucial to getting students to show up to school and engaged in the classroom, ultimately boosting test scores, Green Dot’s Quaile said.

Raleigh-Egypt High School's test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.
Raleigh-Egypt High School’s test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.

But after meeting with several parents and staff members at Raleigh-Egypt High School, Quaile decided she’d have a much harder time creating that sort of culture there.

ASD officials said Thursday they plan to meet with Hopson in the coming weeks to formulate a smoother takeover process, in which community members are better informed about upcoming decisions, and charter schools aren’t pulling out.

Principal Griffin said he plans to have a faculty meeting Thursday afternoon to let teachers know about the decision and prepare for a Thanksgiving day food drive for students Friday. The local Krogers has donated 750 baskets of food Raleigh-Egypt families.

“I think this is an opportunity to know where we’re at now but not knowing where we’re going to be next year, this should be fuel for us to work even harder to hit our numbers,” Griffin said.

In a draft of a letter addressed to community members and obtained by Chalkbeat, Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said the school could potentially be placed in the Shelby County’s iZone, a district-led effort similar to the ASD’s, where staff are also required to reapply to their jobs.

“If Raleigh-Egypt doesn’t make significant progress this year, it will be eligible to match with Green Dot…in the 2016-17 school year,” Anderson said.

The ASD is expected to announce its decisions for the remaining schools on the takeover list on Dec. 12.

 For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at [email protected] 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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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.