Ed Chief

Arne Duncan talks turnaround work in the trenches of struggling Memphis schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks Friday with Lionel Cable, principal of Douglass K-8 Optional School in Memphis and part of the Innovation Zone for Shelby County Schools.

With an audience that included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Melrose High School Principal Mark Neal described the challenges of school turnaround work in Memphis, where efforts to address the city’s high concentration of struggling schools is attracting the attention of the nation.

One of the challenges, Neal said, is understanding “there are some dynamics bigger than us.”

In Tennessee’s largest city, poverty is pervasive. In Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school district with more than 93,000 students, nearly 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. Poor literacy skills, high mobility, gangs and truancy are part of the mix too.

Neal was among educators who spoke with Duncan Friday during a roundtable discussion about how to turn the trajectory of chronically underperforming schools. Serving as the backdrop for the conversation was Douglass K-8 Optional School, a struggling school now achieving student growth under the umbrella of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a state-approved district initiative focused on quickly moving schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Visiting Memphis for the fourth time since he became the nation’s education chief, Duncan commended administrators for their dedication in the trenches of school turnaround work.

“I don’t think there’s any harder work, any more important work, than turning around schools that are historically struggling,” Duncan said.

The outgoing secretary’s return to Memphis in the last months of his tenure was fitting because the city’s changing education landscape reflects part of his legacy as the nation’s education chief. Under the Race to the Top competition announced by Duncan and President Obama in 2009, the administration’s push to improve the nation’s worst schools and close the achievement gap among their students helped to drive local, state, federal and philanthropic efforts to address the city’s woeful K-12 public education system.

The secretary also used Friday’s Memphis trip, including a visit to Southwest Tennessee Community College, as his podium to announce the launch of an experiment that will expand access to college coursework for high school students from low-income backgrounds.

For the first time, those students will be able to access federal Pell grants to take college courses through dual enrollment. Dual enrollment, in which students enroll in postsecondary coursework while also enrolled in high school, is a promising approach to improve academic outcomes for low-income students, Duncan said.

“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly from low-income families,” Duncan said in a news release. “We look forward to partnering with institutions to help students prepare to succeed in college.”

Getting students to graduate high school ready for college, career or other postsecondary training is the goal of schools in the iZone as well. But first, K-12 schools must raise their yearly achievement level and create a culture of learning that supersedes the challenges faced by students outside of school.

Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass K-8 Optional School.

During his school turnaround discussion at Douglass School, principals told Duncan that building relationships with students and their families is key to building a foundation for student learning.

Rodney Rowan, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, said educators are providing “a voice to the children, [but] being a voice to the parents as well.” Many parents know what they want from the school, he said, but struggle to articulate their needs.

“You have to make them comfortable enough to be transparent with you about the things that they need,” Rowan said. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district’s 3-year-old iZone is finding success bridging the gaps among students, parents and families. Its intensive turnaround model requires additional funding for interventions such as extended school hours, rewarding effective teachers with bonuses, and giving principals autonomy to hire teachers and rewrite curriculum.

“In particular, our iZone schools have very strong school leaders,” Hopson said.

Duncan said the iZone’s steady gains in student scores demonstrate that “the progress is very real.”

“I have a pretty good sense of the challenges you face … single-parent homes and sometimes no-parent homes, kids in school when they’re hungry or can’t see the blackboard or whatever it might be. But great principals and great teachers make a huge difference in students’ lives,” he said.

The secretary said he would like to see more school districts emulate the approach that Shelby County Schools has taken with its iZone.

“There’s something pretty special happening in Memphis,” Duncan said. “You guys are ahead of many districts in challenging status quo and putting together a plan, putting together a team and putting together a mini district. I know you have a long way to go, but you’re making faster progress than many school districts and that’s a really, really big deal.”

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Douglass School is now a state reward school for student growth.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.