Charting charters

The good, the bad and the so-so: What a new report says about Memphis charter schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The first annual report on Shelby County Schools’ growing charter sector 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.

Under development for a year, the report released Tuesday identifies several charter schools that outperformed the rest of the district in suspension, graduation and student retention rates in the 2014-15 school year. They include Memphis Business Academy elementary, middle and high schools, Memphis School of Excellence, Power Center middle and high schools, Soulsville and Star Academy.

It also shows a charter sector that basically mirrors the district’s traditional schools when it comes to student scores on end-of-course exams and the state’s standardized tests.

The report is designed to be a tool to help parents make sense of charter school data and show how the performance of its then-45 charter schools compared with traditional schools in 2014-15. Its rollout indicates that the role of charter schools in the district are solidified for years to come as Shelby County Schools seeks innovative ways to improve academic performance.

“The presence of effective charter schools assists us in providing more high quality school options for families, which is a critical part of SCS’ Destination 2025,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in citing the district’s strategic improvement plan.

The city’s charter sector has grown significantly in recent years. In the 2014-15 school year, there were about 12,200 students, or about 10 percent of the district’s population, in charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools. That’s more than double compared to five years prior and does not include Memphis charters authorized by the state-run Achievement School District.

Should current trends continue, one in five students in Shelby County Schools could be attending charter schools by 2020, with total enrollment exceeding 20,000.

The report also outlines plans to better track and report on the quality of both charter and traditional schools.

The district will introduce a “school performance framework” that measures school quality on a 1-to-5 scale and will factor in state and college readiness test scores, academic growth, student attendance and teacher effectiveness. The timetable for the rollout is still being worked out.

Beginning this fall, charter schools also will receive a 1-to-5 ranking on its “operations scorecard” based on financials, federal and state compliance, and student discipline, among other factors.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, said the annual report and scores will give parents easy access to already public information about charter schools and aid in their decisions on where to send their child.

This week’s report comes only months after confusion erupted over the district’s policies for revoking charters of schools that district administrators said were under-performing, under-enrolled or had administrative issues. This spring, Shelby County Schools came under fire for its fast-track revocation of three charters in the midst of a budget crunch. The operators lost their appeals to the State Board of Education in May, but not without the panel chastising the district over its process.

Shelby County Schools is trying to rebuild trust between the district and its charters.

“The spirit of this report reflects both the Board’s and administration’s belief that all of our charter schools are, in fact and in belief, Shelby County schools and that some of the historic challenges between the District and its charter sector can be overcome through improved relationships and a shared commitment to informing our community,” Hopson said.

To ensure clear guidelines for charters, Leon recently announced that each charter operator would sign a contract prior to being approved to open a school under Shelby County Schools. Until now, the operator’s application served as its outline of academic and financial expectations. The new contract will be based on the school performance framework guidelines once they are finalized, Leon said.

In addition to the contract, 4 percent of the public funds the charter would receive per student will be charged as an annual fee to the district to help cover administration costs. Three people in the district’s charter office oversee nearly 50 charter schools. The Achievement School District and the Tennessee State Board of Education charge similar fees to charter operators.

In January, Shelby County’s school board also approved the creation of a charter compact agreement. The compact is designed to help the district work with its charters through sticky issues such as how school space gets used and how schools get funding to serve students with disabilities.

To view the charter report in full, click here.

Building Better Schools

A neighborhood-led school to make its pitch to the Indianapolis Public Schools board

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 15 has long struggled with low test scores, but community leaders say they have a plan to help turn the school around.

Staff and community leaders at School 15 have a vision: A neighborhood-led elementary school that will offer families social services and draw in kids from across the diverse surrounding community.

They’ve concluded that the best way to make that happen is to have the school managed by a new nonprofit, not the local district.

This week, they will present their proposal to the Indianapolis Public Schools board for the first time since planning began more than a year ago. We covered the school last month in a story about how the neighborhood says they can save their struggling school by taking control.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the plan is a unique grassroots effort.

“It’s a great example of the way that we’ve envisioned this model of not being in the situation were one size fits all,” he said. “They understand that it takes more than just the people at the schoolhouse to improve student outcomes.”

If the board approves the plan, the school would join a growing group of “innovation schools” that are still part of IPS but have the freedom of charter schools. Their staff members are also not employed by the district. The board is not expected to vote on the proposal until a later meeting.

Principal Ross Pippin, who would continue as school leader, told Chalkbeat last month that he’s interested in having the flexibility to make decisions on everything from spending to curriculum.“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

“You get ultra-local control of your school, and so you can really be responsive to every detail of your school,” Pippin said. “That’s really to me the biggest excitement about innovation schools.”

How I Teach

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.