New school option

Mike Miles, former superintendent in Colorado and Dallas, opening charter school in northwest Aurora

Mike Miles, former superintendent of Harrison schools, visits a classroom in this file photo.

Former district superintendent Mike Miles, whose reforms in Dallas and Colorado Springs stirred controversy, is set to open a new charter school in Aurora this fall serving at-risk kids.

The Academy of Advanced Learning will borrow strategies Miles has employed elsewhere, including keeping school doors open early and late to help ease families’ child care burden, and differentiating pay for teachers based on their roles so the school can afford extra staff.

“I knew I wanted to continue to be engaged in public education,” said Miles, the school’s CEO. “Public education is the most important work of our time. I’m just convinced of that.”

Others helping with the school’s launch include former state education commissioner Dwight Jones and Kevin Smelker, a former chief operations officer for the Dallas district.

The Aurora school board approved the Academy of Advanced Learning in June. The charter school, which will be near 6th Avenue and Sable Boulevard in northwest Aurora, will open with kindergarten through sixth grade students and add seventh and eighth graders the following year.

The school will follow a model similar to Pikes Peak Prep in Colorado Springs. The school hired Miles last year to make improvements, and he is now its CEO.

The Aurora school will pay teachers different salaries based on the importance of their roles. For example, a reading teacher — expected to help students make large gains to get to reading at grade level — could make $80,000 per year while a physical education teacher would make about $45,000 annually. Most districts don’t differentiate teacher pay by subjects taught, but may give bonuses for hard-to-staff positions.

It’s something Miles says he knows not everyone will agree with, like many of the reforms he has had a hand in over the last decade.

Miles is working to open the Aurora charter school a year after returning to Colorado after leaving his superintendent job in Dallas with two years left on his contract. During his time in Dallas, Miles made headlines for creating new evaluations for teachers and principals and for firing three principals after the district’s school board voted to keep them.

“If you’re going to prioritize resources, high-quality instruction, whatever you’re going to prioritize, that’s a very political act,” Miles said. “When you prioritize you make some people feel like they’re not a priority. If you want to please everyone, don’t be a superintendent.”

Before the Dallas job, Miles had been superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs for six years. In that role, he led the district to adopt one of the first teacher pay-for-performance models in the state that tied salary and raises to annual evaluations.

Tammy Clementi, a former chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools who now works as a consultant and is on the founding board of the charter school, said she is aware of the criticisms of Miles over the years but believes they are a reaction to his drastic changes.

“I’ve worked with Mike, he was my boss and anytime somebody has approached me with ‘Oh Mike Miles?’ I’ve always said, ‘If you’re working hard and you’re doing your job, you don’t have anything to worry about,’” Clementi said. “He is all about holding folks accountable. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Clementi said even though she was unsure about joining a board for a charter school, she was persuaded by a model that will focus on serving at-risk students and that won’t pick and choose its students.

If more students enroll than the school has room for, the school will hold a lottery.

School officials say the Aurora school will focus on at-risk students through the educational model and by providing them a reliable — and free — place to hang out before and after school.

The school promises to have staff at the building from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every school day — as it the case at Pikes Peak Prep — so parents who work don’t have to leave kids home alone. Students can sign up for after-school activities, receive tutoring, get help with homework or just watch television.

The school doors will be open on snow days when classes are cancelled.

“We’ll close if Starbucks closes,” Miles jokes.

Brenda Balderas, a mom of two young boys in Aurora, said the school’s hours are one of the most attractive features for parents she has talked to about the school.

“That right there just opens a lot of doors for parents,” Balderas said. She helped gather parent feedback for the school and said she may send her own kids to the school when they are school-age.

The school will also offer free, full-day kindergarten and will follow a competency-based model that will move students through grade levels as they prove they’ve learned certain competencies, not based on time spent in class. The school will also use personalized learning, relying on technology, such as programs on computers or tablets, that move students through lessons at different paces based on each student’s needs.

By saving money on differentiating teacher pay, Miles said he will be able to hire more staff, like teacher’s assistants to get students more one-on-one help.

“That’s kind of what intrigued me the most,” Balderas said. “It’s a very good opportunity for parents, for their kids, that want a little bit more attention.”

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.