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.

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.