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.

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.