Helping hand

KIPP charter network partners with MTSU to give under-represented students a shot at college

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Seventh-grade students at KIPP Academy Nashville pose with (from left) School Leader Laura Miguez Howarth, KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell, MTSU President Sidney McPhee and MTSU student Deyauna Cook.

Even high-performing low-income students are less likely to go to college than their middling affluent peers.

Addressing that imbalance is the goal of a partnership announced Tuesday by leaders of Middle Tennessee State University and KIPP, a national charter network serving mostly low-income students in Nashville and Memphis.

Beginning this school year, MTSU will seek to recruit and enroll 10 qualified KIPP Nashville and Memphis alumni annually to Tennessee’s largest undergraduate university. The Murfreesboro school also will help the students navigate the complex world of higher education, including obtaining financial aid and building a support network for success.

Low-income students lag behind their more affluent peers in college attainment for myriad reasons. In some cases, they went to struggling schools and aren’t prepared. But often, they simply lack the resources and support to get there. It’s a problem that Tennessee must overcome to reach the state’s ambitious goal of getting 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2025.

“The reality is that less than 10 percent of students from low-income communities earn college degrees,” said Emily Blatter, who directs KIPP’s support program for Nashville alumni attending college. Having MTSU as a partner is critical, she said, because “we can’t do it alone.”

The university is the 85th nationwide to enter a partnership with KIPP, which was established in 1994 with schools in New York City and Houston. The network is renowned for academics results, although critics say its performance is inflated through extra resources from philanthropists and a selective student body.

University logos adorn the hallway of KIPP Academy Nashville.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
University logos adorn the hallway of KIPP Academy Nashville.

The focus on college starts early at KIPP, where walls of middle school classrooms are decorated with posters from schools that students can hope to attend with their current GPA. (According to the posters, students with a GPA of 3.0-3.49 are on track for MTSU.).

KIPP’s homeroom classes also are named for the lead teacher’s alma mater. In a surprise announcement, MTSU President Sidney McPhee said he’ll mentor seventh-grade students in the homeroom named for his university at KIPP Academy Nashville, where Tuesday’s partnership was announced. He said that will entail pizza parties, MTSU basketball games, and check-ins about their grades. He noted that research shows that mentor relationships also help students reach and complete college.

“It makes a difference when there’s someone you can trust and call on,” McPhee said.

KIPP operates four schools in Nashville and eight in Memphis.

3-K for All

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces plan to expand universal pre-K to 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to offer prekindergarten to every 3-year-old child in New York City, he said Monday in one of his most ambitious education announcements to date.

Calling the initiative “3-K for All,” de Blasio said the plan will start by expanding pre-K seats for younger children in District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn over the next two years and encouraging more families to enroll in existing seats. The plan builds on de Blasio’s signature education initiative — a push to provide free pre-K to every 4-year-old in New York City — which he highlights as a major success.

“We have proven through the growth of Pre-k for All that it can be done, and it can be done quickly,” de Blasio said at a press conference Monday at P.S. 1 in the Bronx.

But the initiative will take a while to reach every 3-year-old in the city. The city plans to fund eight districts on its own by 2021, but also wants to raise enough outside funding to make it universal by that time.

Over the past two years, the city has enrolled at least 50,000 additional students in pre-K programs, bringing the total to more than 70,000. Still, research has shown the city’s program is highly segregated — a reality schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has described as a product of parent choice.

Officials cautioned the roll-out would probably be even more difficult than expanding pre-K to 4-year-olds and suggested they would need state and federal funding to make it a reality. The city anticipates adding 4,500 new teachers to staff the effort. In order to reach all city school districts, the city will need to raise $700 million in outside funding, de Blasio said.

“This is going to be a game-changer,” the mayor said, “but it’s also going to be hard to do.”

You can read the city’s announcement here.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”