Setting priorities

Here’s what Memphians say a high-quality school should have

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Westwood High School PTA President Felecia Bean-Barnes talks about education assets during a community meeting in the Whitehaven area of Memphis.

For Felecia Bean-Barnes, curriculum is key.

A parent and president of Westwood High School’s PTA, she’s observed that some Shelby County schools offer advanced placement curriculum or courses in Japanese, for instance, while others don’t.

“We don’t have all the classes at our school that we wish she had,” Bean-Barnes told district leaders at a recent community meeting seeking input from Memphians on what makes a high-quality school.

community

Another parent at the Whitehaven-area meeting quickly chimed in. “We need a foreign language program that starts in elementary school to get these kids college-ready. … We’re trying to do 12 years of school in four years. We’ve got to get on the ball.”

The comments were gleaned during nine community meetings held by Shelby County Schools in the last week, capped by three gatherings Monday night. District staff members facilitated the sessions and documented feedback to gauge community priorities as leaders prepare to downsize the school system amid years of declining enrollment.

“We have limited resources to work with, so we have to start thinking differently about how we maximize our resources, so all our students have equal opportunities,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a videotaped message played at the start of each meeting. “That could mean closing, merging or transforming schools in order to create new high-quality options.”

A yearlong facilities study, scheduled for release this fall, will help guide the hard decisions that policymakers say ultimately must hinge on how to improve academic performance. A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions last week about how the community input eventually will intersect with that data to inform decisions about shuttering schools. But facilitators and school board members assured participants that their feedback is critical to the process. (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk.)

Some meetings drew more than 60 people, others just a few handfuls, as many participants cited engaged parents as one attribute of a high-quality school. One teacher suggested reinstituting family resource centers in all schools to provide resources and training for parents to offset challenges related to a mostly impoverished student population.

Participants defined high-quality schools based on up-to-date technology, small class sizes, retention of high-quality teachers, a climate of safety, STEM curriculum, and the availability of after-school tutoring and field trips, among other things.

Meanwhile, facilitators indicated that the district will measure the quality of schools based on three factors: student achievement, student growth and school climate.

Here are some comments shared at various community meetings:

  • “Every school needs a high-quality administrator, one that’s aware of the conditions of the school, knows the neighborhood and has a passion for what they’re doing. It starts with leadership.” —Terri Stephens, sixth-grade world history teacher at Havenview Middle School
  • “I look at test scores because I know (my daughter) needs a challenge. —Amber Currin, parent of a second-grader who participates in CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary School
  • “All schools should have optional programs. We shouldn’t create inferior schools to have better schools. They should be even across the board.” —Claudette Boyd, whose grandchild attends Melrose High School
  • “Everything starts at the top of the school with a strong administration.” — Leonard Smith, retired educator with Memphis City Schools
  • “You have to have strong teachers. You need good leadership. Quality of the teachers is a must.” — Kayla Smith, parent of students at Oakhaven middle and high schools
  • “We need stability in our school system. Many of our children come from an unstable home environment and then we’re sending them to an unstable school environment where we’re not sure whether those schools will stay open. We tell them “relax and learn,” but someday we’re going to learn that school flight is generating panic and fear.” —Vernall Smith, a graduate of Mitchell High School and grandfather of three Mitchell students

The district has invited stakeholders to share additional feedback online.

Chalkbeat reporters Laura Faith Kebede, Caroline Bauman and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.