A tale of two cities

Achievement gap is narrowing in Memphis, growing in Nashville, study says

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Memphis is making headway while Nashville is struggling in closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, according to a new study released on Tuesday.

While Memphis’ gap is larger than 70 percent of major U.S. cities, it narrowed the gap by a whopping 19 percent between 2011 and 2014, one of the fastest rates in the nation, the study says.

Conversely, Nashville’s gap is bigger than 75 percent of the nation’s major cities, and grew by an alarming 11 percent during the same time period, with only one of 10 students from low-income families attending a school that is closing the achievement gap.

The study is based on the Education Equality Index, the first national comparative measure of the achievement gap at the school, city and state level, and was released by Education Cities and GreatSchools, both nonprofit organizations focused on school improvement, in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.  (The organizations later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

“There is much to celebrate in Memphis,” said Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of Education Cities, of the findings.

With more low-income Memphis families having access to a more equal playing field in education, Gray said the city is “proving that greater equality is possible.”

Memphis and Shelby County’s educational landscape has undergone sweeping changes in the last six years — some the result of the 2013 school merger and the 2014 secession by suburban municipalities creating their own school systems — but also due to major policy changes that led to the creation of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone and the state-run Achievement School District and contributed to the growth of the city’s charter sector.

“The one thing we’re seeing in Memphis, is that the diversity of options you’re providing are really evident on this list,” said Carrie McPherson Douglass, a managing partner at Education Cities.

“The 19 percent score [in closing the achievement gap] is pretty exciting. Even if the overall score is not the best, it shows that Memphis is moving in the right direction,” she said.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that the numbers are even more remarkable considering the challenges facing Tennessee’s largest public school district. They include adapting to new structures amid a shrinking enrollment and budget, as well as a high concentration of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

“I can remember telling our teachers and principals years ago, that they were going to have to drown out all of the noise and chaos, focus, and just make it happen,” Hopson said. “And they did, and they continue to persevere by using an extraordinary amount of focus and grit.”

Nashville school leaders said they are not surprised by the findings that show the state’s capital city lagging.

“There’s been a growing awareness by our board and in our community that Memphis is out-hustling us when it comes to closing the achievement gap,” said Will Pinkston, who serves on the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “The fact that our district’s leadership was not thinking or acting with a sense of urgency in addressing this is one reason why there wasn’t an appetite for renewing Jesse Register’s contract” in 2014 as director of schools.

The nation’s 42nd largest district, Metro Nashville has been plagued by low student achievement and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools, while also struggling to keep pace with its changing student population. It is searching for a new schools director to replace Register.

District leaders also recently toured Shelby County Schools’ iZone, the Memphis district’s heralded school turnaround program, and want to emulate that model in Nashville. “When we have a new director, Job One needs to be to establish an iZone structure that’s similar to what’s going on in Memphis and make sure it’s adequately staffed with competent people who know how to turn around urban schools,” Pinkston said.

The Education Equality Index study identifies up to 10 schools in every major city with the smallest achievement gaps that serve a student population where the majority are from low-income families.

The Memphis schools, which represent Shelby County Schools and three charter schools, are: Delano Elementary, Ford Road Elementary, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Hollis F. Price Middle College High, Jackson Elementary, John P. Freeman Optional, Middle College High, Oakshire Elementary, Power Center Academy High, and Power Center Academy Middle.

In Nashville, RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta points out that top 10 schools include six charter schools — two of which are run by RePublic.

“We have three or four board members in Nashville that vote on denying every charter,” said Gupta, whose Nashville-based charter network also operates schools in Jackson, Miss. “Charters, percentage-wise, are a very small group of schools in Nashville, yet they make up six out of 10 schools on that list. I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

Pinkston, who last year called for a moratorium on all new schools until the Nashville district can grapple with how to balance charter and traditional school growth, notes that charter schools do not serve students with special needs, English language learners and others with limited English proficiency to the extent that Metro Nashville schools do.

“They play by a different set of rules,” Pinkston said. “If you want to run test prep mills in Metro Nashville Public Schools, then by all means let’s charter everything because that’s all those schools care about.”

The Nashville schools listed are Z. Kelley Elementary, Chadwell Elementary, Joelton Elementary, KIPP Academy Nashville, LEAD Prep Southeast, Liberty Collegiate Academy, Nashville Prep, New Vision Academy, Rose Park Math/ Science Middle Magnet, and STEM Prep Academy.

 

Editor’s note: This version updates a previous version to include comments from Metro Nashville school board member Will Pinkston.

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.