Faltering charter to hand school back to district

A charter network brought in to turn around a failing elementary school is handing the school back to the district.

The district brought in the SOAR charter school network to turn around Oakland Elementary school three years ago, as the traditional school was phasing out. Three years later, SOAR officials realized that students’ continued low performance meant a renewal of their contract, up for review this fall, was unlikely. Instead, the network’s board decided to voluntarily pull out of the school at the end of this year and grant control back to the district.

“Knowing that the data was not strong, we were not confident we would get a renewal,” said Marc Waxman, co-executive director at SOAR. “Instead of waiting for that process to occur, we though it much better to work proactively with the district so that the Oakland campus can move forward positively next year.”

The school posted low TCAP scores and the lowest growth in the district last year, according to the district’s SPF data. The school’s math scores stalled, with the district average outpacing SOAR at Oakland’s growth by three times. SOAR at Oakland’s writing growth was less than half the district’s overall. The growth on reading was marginally better, at just over half the district’s pace.

“They serve some of our lowest income kids,” said Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. “It’s imperative that those students make progress and they are not making that progress.”

The district brought in SOAR as part of the larger far northeast Denver turnaround effort, a project that has lead to mixed results with some success at the high school level. Far northeast elementary schools, however, are still plagued with low performance, with over 30 percent of elementary capacity in schools in the two lowest tiers of the district’s rankings.

At Oakland, said Waxman, the charter network ran into trouble as it implemented its turnaround plan.

“The turnaround at Oakland with SOAR was an ambitious practice,” said Waxman. “We did several things that would not be considered best practice for opening a charter school.”

Most new schools open slowly, one grade at a time and add new programs judiciously. SOAR doubled in size its second year in part by absorbing fourth and fifth graders already attending school on the Oakland campus. In addition, the school took over already existing autism and early childhood learning programs.

“We had some new programs that we had never done before that we needed to sort through,” said Waxman.

SOAR operates another school in the district, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch, which has higher performance but has also struggled with student growth. SOAR at Green Valley Ranch received the district’s lowest ranking this year.

“Opening the second school while the first school was growing did stretch us thin,” said Waxman. He hopes being able to devote more energy to a single school will benefit SOAR at Green Valley Ranch.

With SOAR at Oakland’s closure, district staff are recommending opening a district-run school at the Oakland campus. The district will take over management of the school, under the Denver Summit Schools Network, which manages other turnaround schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

The district plans to bring on Lisa Mahannah as the new Oakland principal. She is currently the principal at Force Elementary School, a high-performing district school in southwest Denver.

When SOAR opened at Oakland, according to Waxman, the district had few options for turnaround. Now, however, he said the district is well-equipped for turnaround, having had success in other schools. For one thing, the district has established a support program, the Denver Summit Schools Network, that manages many of the far northeast turnaround schools, including the Montbello campus. The network will also manage the new district-run school that will open in SOAR’s stead.

“What the district and [the Denver Summit Schools Network] can bring to the table is far more than what we can bring to the table,” said Waxman.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.