ESSA plan

Tennessee overhauls approach to low-performing schools under plan sent to Secretary DeVos

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School turnaround work in Tennessee has focused mostly on schools in Memphis but is expected to expand to other cities under the state's new accountability plan.

Tennesseans who have been waiting to see which low-performing schools have improved enough to avoid consequences — and which ones are struggling so much that the state might step in — will have to wait longer.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday that the state will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent in the summer of 2018 instead of this summer as initially planned.

The list will set the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local district-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

The State Department of Education also will elevate the state’s role in overseeing more than 200 “focus schools” struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.

And it’s tweaking criteria for giving A-F grades to each of Tennessee’s 1,800 public schools beginning in mid-2018. The new grading system will put less emphasis on chronic absenteeism than originally planned and more weight on pathways that get students ready for college, career or the military.

The changes were revealed Monday as Tennessee joined more than a dozen states meeting the first deadline to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education in response to a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Tennessee’s plan, which will become effective on July 1 unless U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos takes the unlikely step of turning it down, details how the state will use federal funds for everything from guidance counselors to teacher preparation to arts education.

ESSA was co-authored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and signed into law in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Its intent is to shift the power in public schools to the states — a pivot that some expect to be even more pronounced under the Trump administration.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s plan has stayed the course through the transition in Washington, and McQueen said the state “has one of the best ESSA plans in the country.”

“We can say that because of our focus on all students, our high expectations that this will ultimately lead to postsecondary and workforce success, and the collaboration we have had with our education community,” she said.

That collaboration — which began a year ago and has included working groups, town halls, and about 3,000 comments from Tennesseans and stakeholders — precipitated changes to a draft plan that’s been under public review since December. McQueen said the revised final plan strengthens accountability, among other things.

The changes include resetting the priority school timeline to align with the state’s new school grading system. And per state law, the State Department of Education also will issue a new “cusp list” this fall to notify districts and schools at risk.

Tennessee’s plan also clarifies entrance and exit criteria for schools in its pioneering Achievement School District. The charter-reliant turnaround district now has 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville in its portfolio but has been sluggish in meeting targets for improving test scores. If its schools don’t exit due to sustained improvement, they must be returned to their local districts within 10 years. The ASD remains the state’s most intense track for intervention but also will become a last resort under plans announced late last year to give local districts more time to turn around the schools themselves.

McQueen announced that, beginning July 1, all priority and focus schools will be overseen by the state’s new Office of School Improvement. That office will be staffed in the coming months and will report directly to McQueen, which the commissioner said “elevates the work significantly.”

Much of the conversations around the state’s new federal plan have centered on equity.

Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, says ESSA has inspired Tennessee to focus on equity more than ever before, ensuring that students of color and English language learners are accounted for in the state’s accountability systems. “It’s a really strong plan for all kids, and it’s grounded in equity, not just by word only,” said Pupo-Walker, also the senior director of education policy for Conexión Américas.

Others like the addition of graduate readiness as one of five indicators for grading Tennessee schools under ESSA. Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, called the metrics “an innovative way” to connect K-12 accountability to the state’s drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

But some emphasize that Tennessee’s schools always will fall short without adequate funding — something that’s not addressed in the state’s plan.

“We need more resources. We need more wraparound services, and we need a better curriculum,” said Eligah Sledge, an organizer with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift.

The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days to respond to Tennessee’s plan following a review by a team of educators and experts to see if it complies with the new federal law.

Chalkbeat reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”