Revoking charters

Criticized for how they closed troubled charter schools, Memphis leaders have a new plan

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Cynthia Allen chairs the Charter Advisory Committee formed in Memphis by Shelby County Schools and charter leaders.

Six months after state officials called out Shelby County Schools for its hastened closure of three charter schools in Memphis, the district is moving toward new guidelines that would significantly slow the process.

Last spring, it took only weeks for the struggling schools to be shuttered after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson asked the school board to revoke their charters amid a district budget crisis.

Under the proposed new guidelines, the same decision would take three years — and would be based on clearly defined criteria.

The recommended change, to be considered later this month by the school board, is designed to bring clarity to a fuzzy process for revoking charters in a district that is growing its charter sector every year. It would build in new steps that include notifications and time for operators to make improvements.

The proposal reflects an effort by Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer to respond to state and local cries for clearer rules to guide its oversight of charter schools. It also represents a major concession by district leaders, even as they stand to score a significant win under a separate proposal recommending that charter operators pay the district an annual fee to fund their oversight.

Ultimately, revamping the revocation process would eliminate the surprise factor that some charter leaders say they experienced last spring when six low-performing schools were recommended for closure without significant notice. The State Board of Education later upheld the local board’s vote to revoke three charters — but not before rapping the district’s process for authorizing charters without a contract, as well its expedited decision to revoke the charters in the middle of budget season.

The proposed guidelines are the result of ongoing negotiations between district and charter leaders on the new Charter Advisory Committee. The group has been meeting since July in an effort to develop policies that give the district sufficient oversight authority while giving schools the autonomy to operate and innovate based on Tennessee’s charter school law.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools, helped to craft the new plan.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools, helped to craft the new plan.

The committee voted unanimously in October to recommend the proposed revocation process that was developed under the leadership of state Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation. It would be grounded in academic criteria based on a charter school report card being crafted by the district, as well as an “operations scorecard” highlighting the charter’s performance on finances, student discipline, and federal and state compliance, among other criteria.

Here’s a breakdown of the proposed revocation process:

  1. Charter schools that do not meet minimum expectations under the two assessments would be notified by the district.
  2. Within a month, the school’s leadership would meet with Shelby County Schools and present an action plan to address the low performance.
  3. The district may check in as the action plan is implemented, but would give full autonomy to the charter school, meaning the district wouldn’t give an opinion on the plan’s quality or likelihood of success.
  4. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a second consecutive school year, the district will notify charter leaders again.
  5. A second action plan would be drawn up.
  6. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a third consecutive school year, the district’s administration would recommend revocation to the school board.

While the revocation timeline calls for years instead of weeks, some charter leaders said it’s still too short to adequately address problems, especially given this year’s delays in receiving results from Tennessee’s new standardized test.

“I think we all agree that students shouldn’t be in a school that’s failing year after year,” said Brittany Monda, interim executive director of Memphis College Prep. “But when you’re notified, it’s really just two years of consecutive data.”

Conversely, Leon argued that charter leaders should have a pulse on student performance even before the data is released.

“I think it’s more unfair that you’ve exposed children to a fourth year simply because of the timing of test score data,” Leon said.

The school board is scheduled to review the proposal during its Nov. 29 work session and vote on it on Dec. 6.

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.”

shift

Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.