Tennessee

ASD school takeover process a ‘scam,’ say parents who worked with state-run district

PHOTO: Jim Webber/Commercial Appeal
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School student Jonisha Simms (center) listens as parents and members of the school's neighborhood advisory council protest in December in front of the Shelby County Schools' administration building over the charter matching process established by the Achievement School District.

The Achievement School District’s new school takeover process, heralded by state officials as a way to ensure transparency and parental input about what’s best for Memphis students, came under attack Monday from involved parents who called the process a “scam” based on “biased” data.

As discrepancies surfaced to the ASD’s public reports about the community’s input, some members of the district’s much-touted neighborhood advisory councils held a news conference charging that the process was rigged in favor of pairing struggling schools with charter operators.

Also, a review of NAC rubric and scoring data obtained by the Tennessee Education Report found that many negative reviews of the proposed charter operators were redacted because of “lack of evidence,” making “the matching process a foregone conclusion.”

“This essentially disenfranchises the members of the community to be a real and authentic part of the matching process,” wrote Ezra Howard, a regular columnist for the online education blog.

When unveiling its new community engagement process during the summer, ASD officials said the approach would bring more transparency to its school turnaround work, which has been wrought with community pushback every year since the state-run district took control of its first six schools in Memphis in 2012.

As their efforts at community consensus-building appeared to unravel on Monday, ASD leaders stuck by the process.

“We did our best to run a fair, transparent process and we believe we achieved that,” the ASD said in a statement. “We are grateful to the parents, students, teachers, counselors and community members who spent the better part of two months learning about and evaluating the potential fit of operators that applied to serve these Priority schools.”

LaToya Robinson, a parent who served on one neighborhood advisory council (NAC), was among three NAC members who organized the press conference outside of Shelby County Schools Board of Education building. The group charged that the ASD’s commitment to community involvement was only an attempt to “appease the community,” paving the way for the district’s decision this month to take control of four more schools.

“They took our schools. We did not give [them] away,” one angry parent said.

Robinson was more moderate in her comments later to Chalkbeat, welcoming the ASD’s presence and noting that “before the ASD came, no one cared about (Shelby County Schools).” However, she wishes that ASD officials had been more transparent about how NAC feedback would be incorporated in their final decisions, which ultimately were made by the district’s six-member leadership team.

This year’s takeovers marked a significant shift in the ASD’s approach to state intervention and the pairing of low-performing schools with charter operators. Rather than making a unilateral decision, as they had the previous three years, district officials announced proposed takeovers in September, received applications from interested charter operators in October, and involved panels of parents and community members in scoring the applicants in November.

ASD officials said charter operators for four of five schools met the standards for a match by earning 50 percent or more of the available points from NAC assessments. However, according to the rubrics filled out by NAC members, most operators did not satisfy standards necessary to manage the schools for which they applied.

ASD leaders said the scoring was based on NAC feedback that was “evidence-based.”

Robinson said she had an open mind when she decided to get involved in the ASD matching process. She was chosen to serve on an NAC that would help determine the future of Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools. The mother of two 6-year-old children, she pored over applications by Aspire and Green Dot, two charter networks seeking to manage three Shelby County schools. She loved Aspire, but was unimpressed with Green Dot after touring Wooddale Middle, one of the Los Angeles-based operator’s other Memphis schools.

Detailing her concerns on the ASD’s rubric, she was dismayed after learning later that much of the advisory council’s feedback had been discounted because ASD officials said it was based more on opinion than on evidence. Ultimately, the ASD gave the green light to Green Dot to operate two schools but rejected Aspire’s application to manage one school.

“The process was great,” Robinson said. “But then it was like they found any way they could to make (our rubrics) show what they wanted it to show.”

For Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, all but one council member wrote that Scholar Academies (SA) did not meet standards without reservations on any of the rubric’s eight criteria. The members, whose names were redacted, cited the operator’s lack of understanding of the neighborhood, lack of community outreach, and safety concerns among reasons against a match at this time with the Philadelphia-based charter organization.

“Raleigh Egypt Middle Schools is in a gang-infested neighborhood,” wrote one member. “Many of the students, their family, and friends are in gangs. SA has not talked about procedures for dealing with this issue.”

Another wrote: “There is evidence that Scholar Academies has attempted to involve the school community in the school transformation process before the school conversion but their strategies were ineffective in reaching the broader community as evident by engagement sessions sign-in sheets and community’s response to surveys distributed by SA. There is no evidence that partnerships with organizations in the community have been formed.”

The ASD’s Dec. 11 announcement that it would convert four more Memphis schools into charters came on the heels of a Vanderbilt study suggesting that the ASD has been less effective at turning around struggling Memphis schools than the local district has through its Innovation Zone.

The study intensified community furor against the state-run district and prompted Shelby County’s school board to pursue a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows “consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.” However, Tennessee Department of Education officials said the local district does not have authority to issue a moratorium, since state law gives the ASD authority to take control of eligible low-performing schools to implement strategies designed to turn them around.

In a statement Monday, department spokeswoman Ashley Ball said:  “It’s important to remember that the matching process wasn’t designed to determine if these schools needed an intervention; these schools have been on the Priority list since 2012. The matching process was designed to find the right intervention for these schools and these communities. As improvements to the process are identified, the department will proactively make adjustments.”

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.