Another layer

Tennessee already has one state-run school district. It’s about to get another.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students participate in math class at KIPP Academy Nashville. KIPP's next two schools will be in the new Tennessee State Board of Education school district.

Last fall, the Tennessee State Board of Education overruled school leaders in Memphis to approve a new charter school there, one year after making a similar ruling in a charter school appeal in Nashville.

Now it’s about to become one of only two state boards in the nation to double as a local school district.

The state board’s first school is set to open in Memphis this fall under the management of Green Dot Public Schools. Its next school, KIPP Nashville Primary, will open in 2018, followed by a KIPP middle school in Nashville in 2019.

Hawaii is the only state that currently has a state board of education that also serves as a school district.

“It’s fairly unique situation,” said Kris Amundsen, CEO of the National Association for State Boards of Education. “(School districts) focus on details like how will kids get lunch. That’s not typically the sort of thing state boards do.”

And few, if any, states have two state-run school districts. Local districts in Memphis and Nashville already share turf — and hotly contested funding — with Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The ASD now operates 33 schools, most of which were taken over from Shelby County Schools in Memphis.

The state board has been inching toward school-district status.

In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers voted to let the State Board of Education authorize charter schools in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies an application, the charter organization can appeal to the state board. If the state board overturns the local board, the local board can opt to authorize the school after all — or leave it to the state to authorize.

With both Green Dot and KIPP, school boards in Memphis and Nashville opted for the latter.

But there’s a twist to Tennessee’s state board authorizing the schools. Under state law, the entity that authorizes a school automatically becomes its school district, in charge of funding allocations and many of the school’s day-to-day operations. That’s different from the rest of the nation, where about half of state boards can authorize charter schools.

Now, Tennessee’s state board is starting from scratch to develop local district policy, a topic to be discussed Thursday during a work session in Nashville.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Heyburn Morrison will double as executive director and superintendent of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

“It’s different than the ASD obviously, and it’s different than the (State) Department of Education,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, who is now superintendent as well as executive director of the state board. “We’re really trying to do our homework and reach out (to local districts) early and often and look nationally as well, so we can be prepared to set up students and schools for success.”

She’s aware of the challenges facing established districts in Nashville and in Memphis, where underenrollment, and the accompanying lack of funding, have sunk several schools. Two charter operators have announced intentions to pull out of three ASD schools this spring in Memphis, leading to at least one school closure. Green Dot’s charter school agreement, which is scheduled for a state board vote on Friday, projects an eventual enrollment of 616 students.

“(Enrollment) is something that we will keep a very close eye on from a financial stability standpoint,” Morrison said. “If you’re significantly under-enrolled, are your providing the academic program you were approved for?”

Morrison said the state board hopes to work closely with local school leaders in Nashville and Memphis, and is working on a memorandum of understanding that lays out expectations.

“We really see it as a partnership,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive and create a seamless experience for students coming in and out of (Shelby County Schools) for a school that we may be operating.”

But there are some differences in how local and state-run districts operate. Like the ASD, the state board is allowed to charge charter operators an annual fee. For the state board, the fee is up to 4 percent of a school’s funding for the first two years, and up to 3 percent in the years following. Any money the board does not use will be returned to the school.

Another difference: The state board doesn’t know how much it will expand in the coming years, since its growth depends on local school boards rejecting charter school applications, and charter schools winning their appeals.

Not everyone is happy about the state board’s new role, especially since it will only oversee schools that local districts turned down.

“Now we have two state-run school districts,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, at a recent school board meeting in Memphis. “The problem is — where is the oversight?”

Absent local school board meetings, staff for the state board are working to draft a policy addressing parents’ grievances and concerns, said Tess Stovall, director of charter school policy and accountability.

“We want it to be very clear on how to address concerns throughout the community,” she said.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after details of a child abuse case came to light.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

equity issues

A report found black students and teachers in Denver face inequities. Can these 11 recommendations make a difference?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.

Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. (Read them in full below.) They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

The task force was created in the wake of a critical report documenting the concerns of 70 African-American Denver educators. The educators said black teachers feel isolated and passed-over for promotions. Black students are being left behind academically, the teachers said, in part because of low expectations and harsh discipline by teachers who are not black.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

“A deep thank you for your work and a deep thank you in advance for the work we will be doing together,” Boasberg said.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June.

Read the full recommendations below.