Back to school

Why does Tennessee start its school year so dang early?

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
In Nashville, school started this year with half day on Aug. 3, while students in Memphis went back on Aug. 8.

For almost all public school students in Tennessee, the dog days of August aren’t spent at the swimming pool or summer camp, but back at school.

Many Tennesseans remember school days when they returned to class on the first day after Labor Day. But beginning in the 1980s, the average start date has crept from early September to closer to July as districts search for ways to boost academic outcomes, as well as to address educational inequity.

This year, nearly all Tennessee districts kicked off school in early August, with the earliest start being July 25 and the latest Aug. 17. State law prohibits school starts before Aug. 1 unless the local school board votes to start earlier — an option taken this year by 14 districts.

While schools in the Northeast generally start school in early September, those in other regions increasingly are returning to class in August. National experts attribute the shift in school calendars to testing. An earlier start date means students have more time to prepare for end-of-year state tests and Advanced Placement exams — and that testing for the first semester can end before students’ winter break.

“Tennessee testing is the first week in May,” explains Joe Bass, spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which resumed classes Aug. 3. “Having as many instructional days before that is going to be a benefit.”

There’s no research on whether Tennessee districts with earlier start dates have consequently higher test scores. But studies do show that the more time kids spend in school in general, the better their chances of academic success.

In a few cases, the shift to an early August start has been aimed at giving students more than the requisite 180 days in school.

Some districts such as Oak Ridge, Alcoa City and Maryville in East Tennessee operate on a “balanced calendar,” with a summer break of eight weeks instead of 12, giving students more short breaks throughout the year. Schools can use some of those breaks as “intersessions” to offer remedial coursework or other academic programs.

District leaders hope this approach protects kids from “summer slide,” learning loss that hits low-income kids especially hard during summer breaks. When Metro Nashville moved to a balanced calendar in 2012, it moved up the district’s start date by a little more than a week, to the first week of August.

Nashville officials emphasized the potential positive impact of the change on the district’s large population of English language learners, whose language skills recede when they’re not at school speaking English. Kids who don’t have regular access to food also benefit from shorter breaks. When federal funds ran out to pay for intersession for Nashville students, the district abandoned its “balanced” calendar. But the early start date stuck. Nashville’s school board has set its annual start date for the Wednesday on or after Aug. 1.

The encroachment of class time on summer days have led to several campaigns from Tennessee’s tourism industry to set a statewide uniform start date after Labor Day. In the 1980s, the owners of the now-defunct Opryland USA theme park in Nashville helped to lead the charge — both because of the tourism revenue lost when kids spend August in school and the teenage labor lost when older students go back to school. However, district leaders balked at the proposed state mandate, successfully arguing that the start of school should be a local matter. Similar unsuccessful campaigns raged as recently as 2013.

But more and more, Tennessee kids can’t imagine August any other way.

Zekiyah Brown, a fifth-grader at East Nashville Magnet Middle School, said she didn’t mind returning to school on Aug. 3. Her mother, Adrienne Hockett, who attended Nashville schools when the school calendar started later in August, doesn’t mind either.

“I was excited,” recalled Zekiyah as she was finishing her school day on Wednesday, “because I get to go to a new school and meet new people.”

How does your district compare to other districts in Tennessee? Check out a spreadsheet from the Tennessee Department of Education on start times:

Note: In Sumner County, most schools started Aug. 8. Union Elementary school, a year-round school, started in July. 

Week In Review

Week in review: Controversy about superintendent opening and lawsuits against the state

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Who will be the next superintendent of Detroit schools? The board of education did not grant Alycia Meriweather an interview, but many in Detroit are pushing the board to make her a candidate. Another wrinkle: One of the three finalists withdrew from the competition.

If you were not able to attend Chalkbeat’s kickoff event last Friday, be sure to watch our coverage. You can also view the show here.

Read on for more about Meriweather, mascots, and how school lunches affect test scores.

— Julie Topping, Editor, Chalkbeat Detroit

Interim chief rejected: Detroit schools superintendent Alycia Meriweather is trying to stay focused on the district’s future, like bringing struggling schools run by the state back into the district, but her departure creates another layer of uncertainty for parents and teachers.

Populist support: Meriweather’s exclusion from the search process has triggered angry reactions on social media. Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the school board to reconsider. And on Wednesday, the union representing Detroit teachers called on the board to give her a shot.

And then there were two: One finalist withdrew, leaving two candidates vying to be Detroit schools superintendent. Both have ties to the area and bring experience from other low-performing districts.  

Opinion: Secretly discussing potential Detroit superintendent candidates and voting behind closed doors to tell 16 schools on the state’s priority list that their contracts may not be renewed was called a disservice to parents and students. One newspaper calls for better accountability and transparency.

Opinion: Another commentator believes Michigan doesn’t have the will to improve its underperforming schools.

Getting that diploma: The state’s graduation rate was down slightly for the class of 2016.  But fewer students are dropping out and instead are continuing school beyond four years.

Who gets the credit: East Detroit is no longer under the control of a state-appointed CEO. Local leaders object to state efforts to credit him with district improvements, which they say happened before he arrived.

Mascot fines: The state superintendent wants the power to fine school districts that refuse to change mascots and logos that are widely seen as offensive.

Lawsuit against the state: Educators, parent groups, and others interested in education sued to stop Michigan from giving $2.5 million to private schools to reimburse them for costs associated with state requirements.

Another lawsuit against the state: Detroit schools officially filed papers to keep the state from forcing the closure of failing schools.

Shuttle bumps: A school transportation system that some Detroit leaders had been exploring for this city faces challenges in Denver. The system won praise from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Pushback: The state board of education spurned a recommendation from Gov. Rick Snyder’s education panel to disband the board, claiming it provides “transparency and continuous oversight” of school policy.  

Transformation: A nonprofit group hopes to transform a neighborhood by turning the former Durfee Elementary and Middle School into a community innovation center.

Eat to learn: One large study shows students at schools that serve lunches from healthier vendors get better test scores.

Harsh measures? A teacher’s aide at a Detroit school has been disciplined after a video appeared to show her throwing a student.

Q&A

Eva Moskowitz talks about Betsy DeVos, vouchers, discipline — and how the ‘tide is turning’ for charter schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

As news spread last fall that Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, was being considered for education secretary by then-President-elect Donald Trump, some fellow Democrats were apoplectic. How could Moskowitz, whose schools serve mostly low-income families of color, align herself with a staunchly conservative administration?

Her meeting with Trump and subsequent endorsement of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for the job put her at odds with many other charter leaders. After Trump’s inauguration, Moskowitz’s own staff reportedly pushed her to speak out. Ultimately, she did send a letter home to parents, vowing to assist families wrestling with the president’s immigration policies and to defend transgender students.

Yet she hasn’t wavered on DeVos, arguing that education should be a bipartisan issue. Chalkbeat sat down with Moskowitz to find out more about how she made that political calculation — and if she is concerned about the Trump tie hurting her own aspirations, including a potential future run for mayor.

“I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this,” she told us. “But that’s not how I live my life.”

Moskowitz, a former City Council education chair and frequent critic of district schools, knows about political payback. The United Federation of Teachers successfully mobilized against her 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Still, she continues to lob grenades at the union and at Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom she’s called “very hostile” to charters.

In a wide-ranging interview, Moskowitz discussed her plans for expanding Success, the city’s largest charter network, which now has 41 schools. Not only does she still expect to have 100 schools within the decade, she predicts the number of students served by charters in New York City will double in just four years, assuming Albany lifts the current cap on the sector.

“The demand is just overwhelming,” she said. “It’s not a force that is easily stopped.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been supportive of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Do you agree with her on vouchers?

I support all forms of parental choice: Charters, tax credits. I certainly have, in the past, supported vouchers for special ed kids, and now vouchers for all kids. If that is your only choice to get to a good school, I can’t morally see how I limit a parent’s opportunity for that. Now, having said that, I think a lot of these schools are not very good. And they need to lose their status when they don’t deliver, just the way the district schools should lose their status. But I broadly support parent choice.

What about the research showing that vouchers are often harmful to students?

I don’t think the vouchers are harmful. I think that’s a misunderstanding — the service delivery mechanism is not what is harmful. What is harmful is the bad school. So, we’ve got to figure out a way to give parents the freedom to choose. I think that’s going to be very empowering and I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. And then, government has some regulatory role to ensure that good schools of all forms are promoted and lousy schools are shut down or get access to limited resources. And that’s really an accountability mechanism. But that’s my personal view. I don’t spend a lot of time on vouchers or even tax credits because I think charters are a faster way to get great schools in the hands of parents. But I do believe in being intellectually consistent and so that’s why I support parental choice broadly.

DeVos’s nomination and confirmation split the ed reform movement. Do you think that’s caused permanent damage?

I think there were a lot of splits in the movement beforehand. I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue. And I think you have elections for politics. I supported Hillary Clinton, but when the election is over, I think it’s important to work with people across the aisle. And children and families, for them, the daily experience is not a partisan issue. It’s about great teaching and learning and the academic development and social and emotional development of their kid. So I think there’s a time for politicking and a time for governing.

Did backing her hurt you personally — among your peers in the charter sector? Or for the future, if you want to run for mayor?

We live in a pretty intolerant world and people use everything against one that they possibly could. So I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this. But that’s not how I live my life. I try and live my life by thinking about what’s the morally correct thing to do and how do I be consistent with my beliefs and what I’m trying to do. And then I let the chips fall where they may.

Critics are concerned that Secretary DeVos doesn’t know enough about public education. You went to public school, you sent your children to public school. She didn’t. Does that matter?

Well, Joel Klein didn’t know a lot about public education before he became chancellor [of New York City schools]. And I think you could find a number of past secretaries of education who were not either consumers of public education or had that much contact. I think more challenging for her — because you can surround yourself with good people who understand it at a very high level — I think it’s government relations. The space is so contentious that knowing how to navigate in that environment, that’s hard to learn quickly. And I think she’s going to have to learn it quickly. It’s not obvious, I think, if you haven’t been in that world, how brutal it is and how contentious.

Success currently has 41 schools, serving 14,000 students, but you’ve talked about expanding to 100 schools in the next 10 years. How do you choose which neighborhoods you want to open in?

We go to neighborhoods where there is extraordinary educational need, where schools are failing, where there isn’t great art, music, dance, chess. But also where there is space, because I am dependent on there being space to open up schools. Last year, we went to Far Rockaway because there is extraordinary educational need. That community is not in the spotlight, but there is great, great educational need there. And there was a building that was at 50 percent utilization and so there was just plenty of room to open up a new school.

What about your schools that are in more affluent or middle-class neighborhoods? You’ve spoken a lot about serving low-income students, so why open on the Upper West Side or in Union Square?

To me, the definition of public education is that public schools are for everyone. They’re not just for the most educationally disadvantaged or poorest. And so we take the notion of public education very seriously. And where there is space, we are very interested in serving the larger public. We also believe very much in integrated schools — socioeconomically, ethnically and racially — and in New York, there are often very affluent people living right next to quite economically disadvantaged people, and so, if you open up a school, you can have a very integrated school.

Brandeis High School [on the Upper West Side] was an underutilized building. It has brownstones and it has housing projects right next to each other, and so that is a highly integrated school. And we believe in that. Everything else being equal, we think integrated schools are better.

Gov. Cuomo has proposed lifting New York City’s charter cap so we’d just have one statewide cap instead. That would obviously give more flexibility to charters looking to expand in the city. Are you counting on that happening?

It’s always dangerous to count on anything in Albany, so I don’t count on much of anything. But obviously, long-term, the cap would have to be lifted. And there is such parental demand that I don’t even think the strongest opponents are going to be able to resist.

It seems like the governor is supporting you — based on this and other proposals now pending.

The New York state legislature as a whole, I think, has turned a corner. There are a lot of Assembly members who are supportive of charters. It’s a bipartisan issue. I really think it’s unions who are kind of left in their corner.

Most politicians understand this because many of them have children themselves and they want good choices for their own kids. And so, they kind of get that it’s not fair for other people’s kids not to be able to get good choices. So I think the tide is turning in a positive direction.

Charter schools in New York City now serve 100,000 students — roughly 10 percent of city students. Do you envision a future where charters represent close to half of the city’s schools, as in D.C., or nearly all schools, as in New Orleans?

I do think in the next four years, you’ll see a doubling of that size of the charter sector — from 100,000 to 200,000. And remember it took 18 years to get to 100,000. I think it’s going to go much, much faster in the future.

Even with the cap?

Yeah, because I think the cap is going to be lifted at some point. It has already been lifted several times. As I said, the demand is just overwhelming. It’s not a force that is easily stopped. We keep opening and our waitlists keep growing. And we’re one set of schools.

I’m not saying that because I think parents are sort of charter-lovers or anything like that. This whole district public school vs. charter public school — I don’t think parents think of it that way. I think they think of, “I want a great school for my kid. Who’s got one? And how can I get my kid into that school?” And frankly the random lottery system seems fairer to parents than you have to be zoned for some area where you can only get into that zone if you’re able to rent an apartment that is too expensive for you. That seems very unfair to parents.

I just think you’re going to see growth. There are still obstacles, though. It takes a lot of work and navigation to get the space. … And to date, we’ve had a mayor who is very reluctant to give charters space. So that’s going to be a limiting factor if we can’t change those policies and make it easier. I know quite a bit about this and have been working at this for almost two decades, and I find it very, very challenging.

You’ve said we need to rethink teacher training. What needs to change first?

There are so many things. I think teacher training is sort of forced to design its programs often for dysfunctional schools because we have so many. And I think that means that it’s not preparing teachers for places of excellence. The training looks very different — starting with content. Teachers actually need — even kindergarten teachers — need to understand mathematics. The public doesn’t really understand this, but the mathematical understanding needs to be quite high.

Even if you’re explaining something like 3+2 equals 4+1, that equal sign and what that actually means is a kind of a profound mathematical concept. And that is, in a way, algebraic equation. And so, you need to have content mastery. And if you’re a kindergarten teacher or let’s say a third-grade teacher, you need to know where the kids have come from, what does K-2 look like? But you also have to have some idea content-wise of what middle school looks like. And you not only need that on the content side, but you need it on the child development side.

When you encounter kids for a long period of time — five- and six-year-olds — you understand the kinds of mistakes they make. And if you spend a lot of time with pre-adolescents, they have certain misconceptions that you have to understand as a teacher. And that really helps you be a better teacher. And it’s both on the academic side, but it also is socially and emotionally, and how they think about moral choices and moral character. And you can be so much better at the job if you understand that, and that takes a lot of training.

The state teachers union just put out a report claiming that charters have massive cash reserves and shouldn’t be asking the state for more funding. Any thoughts on that?

I haven’t seen the report yet, but I can say that it is profoundly unfair and disingenuous for the unions to go to Albany every year asking for massive increases [in state funding for education] and for them to impose a freeze, which was scheduled to sunset this year. Why should a public charter kindergartner be worth less than a district kindergartner? I’m a parent and, in fact, I could be a parent of a district fifth-grader and a public charter kindergartner. I want my kids to get the same level of resources.

But don’t charter schools have their own funding streams — from foundations and donations?

So does the PTA of P.S. 6. And so does Brooklyn Tech. … So district public schools raise money privately. The mayor raises money privately for the district schools. Yes, we raise — the charter sector — some limited funds privately, but I don’t see that as a moral justification for capping our funding on top of an institutionalized inequity. Charter schools get, depending on how you count and the nature of the school, somewhere between 63 and 75 cents on the dollar. And that was built into the formula and the unions promoted that kind of inequity. Then in 2009, [the state] froze the formula. That is just patently unfair to kids and families.

Shifting gears, some charter networks have abandoned “no excuses” discipline in recent years. Are you ever tempted to rethink your approach?

We were never a “no excuses” school. That’s a really important point. We are a progressive school with an emphasis on magical learning, engagement, talent, development, art, music, dance. That’s not the kind of school we are. We do have uniforms. And, as you know, I have publicly supported and defended suspensions. The mayor now apparently agrees with me, finally, and has reversed himself.

Well, somewhat.

He made them illegal in the New York City school system — you could not suspend children K-2 and now you can. So that’s a pretty big reversal and he was pressured, ironically, to do that by the teachers union.

But his overall thrust is still away from suspensions. He sees them as a last resort.

We agree on that, too. We don’t use suspensions as a first resort. There are many systems of classroom management. But if you have a kid who stabs another kid with a scissor, and you’re the parent of that kid, I think you’re going to feel pretty strongly that that is such a violent act. Or let’s say your child gets bitten, which happens very commonly, you’re going to feel that going into a buddy classroom or not getting as many stars and all the various complex systems of management, that that may not be sufficient.

Suspensions are one of many, many tools in the tool kit and we believe that it is not fair to the other children in the classroom or the teacher to have a violent child disrupting the learning of all. And so we suspend, and we suspend to make it clear to that child and the parents that this is not OK. And we stand by those policies.