Building Better Schools

D.C. Public Schools officials tour Memphis iZone

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone superintendent Sharon Griffin is flanked by Jason Kamras and Gene Pickard, leaders with the District of Columbia Public Schools, during a Wednesday tour of Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis.

The mounting success of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone is attracting national attention from other school districts exploring initiatives that could improve their own low-performing schools. 

Administrators with the school turnaround program on Wednesday hosted representatives of District of Columbia Public Schools, one of the nation’s most troubled school systems which, like Memphis, serves a large population of students from low-income families.

The D.C. officials were the fifth contingent of educators to tour the iZone, where most schools saw gains in math and science on the state’s TCAP exam last year. 

Other visitors have included school leaders from Detroit, Knoxville and Oakland, Ca., as well as the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based educational and policy studies organization.

“People are wanting to look at our strategies in action,” said Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent. “All of our success on paper is one thing, but when you actually come in, you can talk to teachers and a central office-level staff (person) about not only our successes, but our challenges as well.”

The iZone’s work was highlighted in a December report by Vanderbilt University tracking school improvement efforts in Memphis. The researchers said iZone schools are having “positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.”

Griffin welcomes attention from other school districts facing similar challenges. “It’s a great way for us to bounce ideas off one another,” she said.

Created in 2010, the iZone gives administrators of low-performing schools the autonomy to institute intensive turnaround efforts such as hiring and firing staff, overhauling curriculums, awarding bonuses to teachers, and adding time to the school day.

Eighteen Memphis schools have been absorbed into Shelby County Schools’ iZone, 17 of which have seen positive gains, including seven schools that are no longer on the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools. Three more Memphis schools are scheduled to join the iZone next school year.

Griffin attributes much of the iZone’s success to having the autonomy to handpick staff and alter strategies without waiting for data to tell them what they already know — that something isn’t working.

Sarah Lee, a D.C. district official on Wednesday’s tour, said information gathered from Memphis’ iZone will help school leaders determine next steps in the nation’s capital, where struggling schools have had stagnant or incremental academic growth.

Public school officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone's top-performing schools.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone’s top-performing schools.

“We’re designing our turnaround work right now, so everything is open to discussion,” she said. “It could be that we implement some of the best practices, or it could be that we follow the structuring of schools similar to the iZone clusters.”

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has sought the authority to use charter schools as a school turnaround mechanism and to have flexibilities to extend the school day and initiate other significant interventions. The iZone model does not include charter networks but does provide more autonomy for school leaders. In Memphis, the iZone has been a less confrontational turnaround approach than charter schools, which have been the primary intervention vehicle of the other major turnaround program in Memphis, Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The iZone also has the benefit of not ceding enrollment and funding to charters, which make up a growing share of D.C. schools

Lee said her team has searched the nation for best school improvement practices and was led to Memphis by the Vanderbilt study, as well as similar challenges faced by both Shelby County Schools and D.C. Public Schools.

“I think we have similar student demographics,” Lee said.  “A lot of the challenges that Dr. Griffin talked about are not surprising to us; its a familiar story for us.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”