Making diplomas mean something

State board finally gives approval to grad guidelines

The Colorado Department of Education.

The State Board of Education Wednesday voted 6-1 to approve a revised menu of choices school districts will use to set their requirements for high school graduation.

Districts will have to choose at least one item from the menu of graduation guidelines, described in the board motion as a “floor.” Districts can choose one, some or all of the menu items and add whatever additional graduation requirements they want, such as a certain set of classes in high school.

Students wouldn’t have to meet all the benchmarks on the state menu but could choose from them in addition to meeting local requirements.

Most of the menu items are standardized language arts and math tests such as the ACT, SAT, Accuplacer, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. The menu sets scores students would need to achieve to meet the requirements.

Other items on the menu include passing grades in college classes taken by high school students, district-approved independent study or class projects and industry certificates in various trades. The original list included PARCC tests, but the board voted to remove that option, reasoning that the test only will be given in 9th grade moving forward.

The board’s motion also allows districts to seek waivers from the guidelines.

The graduation guidelines have a long history of stops and starts.

Because the state constitution gives local school boards control over instruction, it’s long been considered unconstitutional for the state to impose any uniform requirements for high school graduation.

A 2008 education reform law tried to work around that by directing the Department of Education and the board to develop graduation guidelines that districts had to “meet or exceed.”

The board didn’t act on a set of guidelines until 2013, when it approved a menu that included measures of not only language arts and math but also science and social studies.

That list drew criticism from many administrators and school leaders, who complained that the menu was unfair to smaller districts that wouldn’t be able to offer as many choices to their students as larger districts.

The department went back to the drawing board with a large task force of educators who developed the revised menu — dropping science and social studies — that was approved by the board Wednesday.

Some business and education reform groups criticized the new menu, arguing it watered down the original guidelines.

The revised menu was presented to the board earlier this year, but some board members weren’t happy with it and delayed action.

But the timetable laid out in that original 2010 law finally forced the board to act. The guidelines are supposed to apply to students who graduate at the end of the 2020-21 school year – students who will enter 8th grade next fall. It’s common practice for districts to inform incoming 8th graders of graduation requirements.

The decision seems to leave no one happy.

Several members of the task force that developed the second menu testified to the board and had qualified support.

Bret Miles of the Northeast Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services said, “The second menu is definitely much improved.” But his endorsement was nuanced. “Determining the graduation requirements is best done at a local level,” he said. “We believe there are still enormous equity issues even in the second menu.”

The guidelines likely will be revised in the future. The board’s motion directs the education department to convene a study group to find more career and technical education options that can be added. The motion also requires creation of a second group of parents, educators and industry representatives to study other possible additions.

And board chair Steve Durham told his colleagues that if any of them come up with menu additions, he’d be happy to add those suggestions to the next board meeting agenda.

The lone board no vote, Debora Scheffel of Parker, criticized the menu’s reliance on standardized tests.

“I think that’s a huge problem,” she said.

Hunt for new commissioner ramps up

The board was briefed on the search for a new education commissioner by Gary Ray, president of the search firm Ray and Associates.

The company is conducting meetings this week to gather educator and public comment on desired characteristics of a new commissioner. Get information about the meetings and take an online survey here.

Ray will brief the board on the survey and the meetings on Sept. 21, and the deadline for applications is Nov. 7.

“We’ve had some inquiries, but people keep asking me what they’re looking for,” Ray said. “The word is out there. I can tell you that.”

The board will receive applicant names in mid-November and conduct interviews in early December.

Robert Hammond retired as education commissioner in June, and Elliott Asp is serving in an interim role.

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.