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.

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”