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.

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.