IPS board president: Mind Trust broke the rules on $100,000 fellowships

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Heather Tsavaris, Marlon Llewellyn, Lauren Franklin and Earl Phalen (left to right) were the winners of The Mind Trust's $100,000 innovation school fellowships in 2014.

Indianapolis Public School Board President Annie Roof said Wednesday The Mind Trust broke a written agreement by choosing three $100,000 fellowship winners without getting enough input from district officials.

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, announced in May that it would fund up to nine more “innovation fellowships” over three years, jointly selecting educators to develop new school reform plans with the goal that the IPS board could select the best ones to help turn around some of its most troubled schools.

But that’s not what happened, said Roof, who was one of two IPS board members on the joint selection committee. The program could even dissolve if IPS withdraws its support.

“They did not uphold their end of the (agreement) which leaves me concerned about this contract,” Roof said. “I’m cautious to continue.”

David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust, said in a statement that his organization stands by the process it followed to select the fellows.

“We’re fully comfortable that we followed the process we set out for selecting innovation school fellows, and we’re happy to continue working with the district to refine that process,” Harris said. “We’re now focused on equipping the innovation school fellows to start high quality schools that will provide excellent educational opportunities for students within IPS.”

The three fellows will each earn $100,000 this year to develop and implement their own ideas for how to create a successful public school. If IPS approves their ideas, they could open a new school as early as next fall.

But Roof and board member Gayle Cosby, who was also on the selection committee along with Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, city officials and others, said  they were shocked to find a pool of only four people to choose from for three fellowship spots. The expected to review closer to half of more than 60 who applied. The Memorandum of Understanding the board signed with The Mind Trust states that the district will work “in consultation with IPS … to review fellowship application(s).”

“My understanding before heading into the process is that we would be allowed to review a summary or a broad view (of candidates),” Cosby said. “To only be invited to review the final four selections … was a bit concerning. The field was very narrow.”

Roof also argued the three winners were never actually endorsed by the district, as required by the agreement.

Heather Tsavaris, a former federal counter-terrorism official, Lauren Franklin, principal of IPS School 56, and a team of Earl Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn were chosen as the fellows. Phalen is the founder of an Indianapolis charter schools and Llewellyn has been a school administrator for public and charter schools.

“When we left that day, the committee as a whole was under the understanding that we didn’t come to a conclusion of any candidate,” Roof said. “We walked away thinking that we were going to reconvene in a year and try this again. I felt kind of blindsided in a couple days when they announced the candidates. I read it in the newspaper.”

Roof informed board members of her concerns Wednesday at a school board committee meeting.

“My signature is on it,” Roof said. “As president of the board, it’s my job to make sure the contract was upheld, and it wasn’t.”

Board member Caitlin Hannon, who was not at the meeting because she is not on the committee, which was formed to evaluate future partnerships with charter schools and others, said she is enthusiastic about the fellowship program and she stressed that the district ultimately has control over who opens a school.

“Our place of control is in determining the actual contract for the people who will run the actual school,” Hannon said. “That makes me comfortable.”

Ferebee told the board that he also was not given the opportunity to review more than four fellowship finalists. He suggested a meeting to find a solution.

“My recommendation is to just to be fair and give them an opportunity to respond,” Ferebee said.

Other board members said they were also concerned about how the process unfolded and uncertain about the future of what was supposed to be a three year partnership with The Mind Trust investing up to $900,000 to develop ideas it hoped could help improve IPS schools.

“If we don’t talk about that now, we don’t move forward with the next piece,” Arnold said. “This is a great opportunity and we might get some wonderful (ideas) to help our kids. I don’t want to say we don’t want to play.”

Roof was reluctant, but said she would agree to a meeting.

“The situation would give me pause,” Roof said. “I’m not against the partnership or people wanting to do things for IPS. It’s our job to make sure IPS is making good decisions.”

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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.