College-bound

How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.