year in review

Five stories that shaped Memphis public schools in 2016

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
School closure public meeting at Carnes Elementary School.

Memphis is not only home to Tennessee’s largest public school district. It’s also a national hub for school improvement efforts supported by local, state, federal and philanthropic initiatives. Here are some of the city’s biggest education storylines for 2016:

Shelby County Schools began to ‘right-size’ its footprint by systematically closing and consolidating schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frisli Hernandez, a student from Charjean Elementary School, speaks at a December school board meeting where school leaders considered several consolidation projects.

Shelby County Schools had 22,000 empty seats in aging school buildings this year, meaning the limited resources of the cash-strapped school system were spread thin. While Memphis leaders have closed schools annually in recent years, 2016 saw the launch of the first systematic process for addressing the district’s under-enrollment challenges. The action was spurred by a comprehensive footprint analysis ordered by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 to guide school closures for the next five years. Hopson’s goal is to align the numbers of students and seats, while also boosting academic and programmatic quality. He estimates the district will need to close up to 18 schools. In his first round of recommendations, Hopson is seeking to consolidate five schools into three new buildings and close two more outright. The final vote on that proposal is scheduled for early next year.

The state-run Achievement School District took a one-year pause in school takeovers, while its lineup of charter networks began to change.

Citing the transition to Tennessee’s new TNReady test, ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a “hold harmless” year, freezing the school turnaround district at 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. The pause allowed the ASD to put more focus on supports for its portfolio of charter networks, which have struggled with operational issues ranging from facilities to enrollment. But ongoing efforts to bolster enrollment were not enough for two charter operators. Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools in North Memphis, leaving the future of those schools uncertain. Then this week, the Memphis board for KIPP voted to exit and close one of its four ASD schools. With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. But that expansion may be slowed under a new education plan proposed by the State Department of Education.

Enrollment wars heated up.

Shelby County Schools’ enrollment has dropped drastically since the state-run district began its annual expansion in 2012, and six suburban municipalities broke off to form their own school systems in 2014. After years of watching the drain of students — and the funding they bring — Shelby County school leaders finally

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School re-opens under the state-run Achievement School District.

had enough. This spring, the district went on the offense and rezoned parts of schools slated to shift to the ASD. Leaders also actively sought to retain students through tactics that ASD officials said amounted to misinformation and withholding of enrollment information.

But collaboration became an emerging priority for Shelby County Schools and its growing charter sector.

Memphis has more charter schools than any city in Tennessee, and charter leaders long have griped that Shelby County Schools could do more to support operators of charters authorized by the local school board. In January, both groups committed to working through turf battles. The resulting committee has begun to shape policy around funding, facilities and accountability. But that work didn’t come soon enough. The State Board of Education rapped Shelby County Schools for its lack of process after the school board’s hastened revocation of three charters this spring led to appeals — the first of their kind in Tennessee.

The local district managed to close its funding gap — for now.

With enrollment and funding down and the last of a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drying up, Shelby County Schools started out the year facing an $86 million deficit. Leaders managed to close that gap little by little, culminating with a significant $22 million boost from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners only days before the new fiscal year. The extra money came during an especially high-stakes year and helped the district give its teachers a 3 percent raise. For next year, district leaders are moving up their annual budget timeline to address deficits sooner and get more community input. The public’s first look at a proposed budget is expected in January.

By the numbers

Early reports indicate New York opt-out rates are decreasing statewide, a possible sign of eased tension

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Early opt-out estimates started rolling in Wednesday, the day after students sat for their first round of New York state standardized tests this year.

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

These are only preliminary numbers, based mostly on reports from school districts. Both High Achievement New York and New York State Allies for Public Education are tracking these reports closely and providing early tallies. The state will release an official tally this summer and would not provide any information at this time. But if it is true that opt-out rates are declining, it could be a sign that tension is slowly seeping out of what has been a charged statewide education debate.

“I think slowly and steadily, the situation is calming,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promotes testing. “The changes that the state made are good changes and have helped calm the water.”

On the other side, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, said the numbers still look strong, the decreases are “very minor” and there is still a lot of information to be collected.

“The reality is, whether the numbers go up or down, there’s still a major problem with the testing in our state,” Rudley said.

Over the past few years, the number of families opting their children out of tests statewide has been on an upward trajectory, as teachers and parents protested what they saw as an inappropriate emphasis on testing. (There are currently three testing sessions each for English and math administered to students in public school grades 3-8.)

Backlash to the tests heightened in response to the state’s decision to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to tie those test results to teacher evaluations. The opt-out rate climbed to one in five students in 2015.

Partly in response to the movement, the state began to revise learning standards and removed grades 3-8 math and English tests from teacher evaluations tied to consequences. The Board of Regents selected a new leader, Betty Rosa, endorsed by opt-out supporters. Last year, the tests themselves were shortened slightly and students were given unlimited time to complete them. But, officials were unable to quell the tension. Roughly the same number of students sat out of the tests last year as the year before.

It’s difficult to estimate whether the opt-out rate has increased or decreased in New York City yet, said Kemala Karmen, a New York City representative for NYSAPE. She said that, anecdotally, in schools she has been in contact with, opt-out rates have either remained constant or decreased. Yet she has also heard of opt-outs in schools that had not reported them in the past. Karmen is also critical of the state’s changes to testing, which she thinks do not do nearly enough to assuage parents’ concerns.

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body. Still, the movement’s political ramifications are being felt statewide.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “ … We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”