rebranding

Seeing needs beyond good teachers, Teacher Town Memphis changes its approach and its name

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Offices for Memphis Education Fund collaborators are housed in a downtown Memphis building known as Teacher Town Commons.

A Memphis philanthropic collaborative is revising its public image as its leaders rethink the ways they want to help the city’s schools change.

Teacher Town is becoming the Memphis Education Fund and adopting the goal of improving the lowest-scoring 10 percent of schools in the city, the group announced this month.

The collaborative was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders with local philanthropists. The goal was to transform Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers, a vision that built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

But as those efforts unfolded, Teacher Town leaders realized that hiring and training new teachers alone would not transform local schools.

“There is a strong correlation between great schools and great school leadership,” said Marcus Robinson, who recently became the organization’s first full-time CEO. “If we are serious about recruiting and retaining the most talented teachers, we have to be equally committed to developing the principals and central office administrators they need to coach, support, and motivate them.”

In response, the group decided to broaden its causes to include training principals, supporting Shelby County Schools’ efforts to improve some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, and engaging the community in school improvement efforts.

Now, the fund is in the middle of spending $10 million to help Shelby County Schools overhaul struggling schools through its Innovation Zone. It’s also giving money to help schools in the state-run Achievement School District serve students with disabilities.

Other grants have gone to organizations that help to train principals or work to engage families in school improvement efforts. The fund’s website lists 22 local and national organizations receiving support, including the parent organizing groups Memphis Lift and Stand for Children Tennessee.

Rather than holding money on its own, the fund identifies grantees and then works with donors to support them directly. The money is managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, a nonprofit organization overseeing about a thousand charitable funds.

A 2014 report in The Stanford Social Innovation Review lists three of the city’s leading philanthropies — the Hyde Family, Poplar and Pyramid Peak foundations — among the fund’s founders. The organization does not publish a list of its current donors, some of whom prefer to remain anonymous, Robinson said.

Marcus Robinson is former CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools in Indianapolis.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Memphis Education Fund CEO Marcus Robinson is former CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools in Indianapolis.

(Disclosure: Hyde and Pyramid Peak also support Chalkbeat. Learn about our funding here. Chalkbeat also rents office space in Teacher Town Commons, a working space where the fund’s leaders and many of its partners keep offices.)

Similar funds in other cities sometimes take a narrower approach. Chicago’s education fund tackles one issue at a time, right now focusing on issues related to principals, for example. Memphis is trying to tackle multiple issues at one time, Robinson said.

“Memphis is trying to improve education quality at a different scale,” he said. “Our work is commensurate with the kinds of ideas happening in Shelby County.”

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”

Funding & Finance

$32 million is headed to Indiana schools to educate English-learners

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
A first grader does his work while sitting on a bilingual rug at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14, 2014. The charter school, with 55 percent English-language learners, uses a blended language learning approach.

Indiana schools serving students learning English are getting another budget boost this year.

The state budget, passed last week and awaiting the governor’s final approval, sets aside about $32 million for English-language learners, up from about $20 million in 2015. That will give schools $250 for each English-learner student in 2018 and $300 for each student in 2019 — up from $200 — along with even more funding for schools with higher concentrations. Charter schools will also be included for the first time.

The funding comes as districts across the state continue to see their number of English-learners grow. As Chalkbeat chronicled in our award-winning series, Lost in Translation, two-thirds of Indiana schools have seen an increase in the share of students learning English since 2006. And in Indianapolis, the number of English-learners attending Marion County public school districts has almost tripled since 2001.

For Indianapolis Public Schools, the impact will be significant. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new formula for districts with higher concentrations of English-learners would bring in a little more than $5 million in new state money over the next two years.

Jessica Feeser, who oversees IPS’ programs for English-language learners, said the additional money might go toward adding teaching and staff positions at the newcomer program, a school that serves students who are new to the country and learning English.

“The best news about this is not just the money itself, but the message that it sends to our students and their families,” Feeser said. “That they are extremely important to our lawmakers and to the citizens of Indiana, and that we’re ready to invest in them.”

Under the new budget, all schools would get the $250 or $300 grant for each English-learner. But schools with higher concentrations of students learning a new language would get additional, much larger per-student grants.

For districts and charter schools with between 5 percent and 18 percent English-learners, the state would give an extra $975 in 2018 and $1,037 in 2019 for each student above the 5 percent threshold. For districts and charter schools with more than 18 percent English-learners, the state would dole out an extra $1,225 in 2018 and $1,287 in 2019 for each student above the 5 percent threshold.

This differs from the formula created in 2015, which only gave extra grant money to public school districts with English-learner populations above 25 percent. Charter schools were excluded. At the time, only two districts qualified — Goshen Community Schools and West Noble schools, both in Northeast Indiana.

Here’s how the English-learner population breaks down in Marion County districts:

  • Perry Township: 3,314 students, making up 20.5 percent of the district
  • Indianapolis Public Schools: 4,145 students, 14.4 percent of the district
  • Pike Township: 1,579 students, 13.9 percent of the district
  • Wayne Township: 2,029 students, 12.6 percent of the district
  • Washington Township: 1,431 students, 12.5 percent of the district
  • Lawrence Township: 1,792 students, 11.2 percent of the district
  • Speedway Schools: 191 students, 10.6 percent of the district
  • Warren Township: 853 students, 6.9 percent of the district
  • Decatur Township: 293 students, 4.5 percent of the district
  • Franklin Township: 271 students, 3 percent of the district
  • Beech Grove Schools: 70 students, 2.3 percent of the district