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Teacher-centered reforms key to Chattanooga schools' turnaround

Federal Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visiting a Chattanooga school in 2005.

Bonuses for teachers based on value-added measures. Firing and selective re-hiring of all teachers. Were these the key reforms responsible for the significant improvement of the “Benwood eight,” a group of struggling schools in central Chattanooga?

Elena Silva of Education Sector argues in Phi Delta Kappan that what really turned around these schools was validation, support, and on-going professional development for Chattanooga’s existing teaching force:

[It} would be a mistake to conclude that efforts to bring different, more effective teachers into the Benwood eight represent the only — or even the primary — lesson of the Chattanooga reforms. What Benwood teachers needed most were not new peers or extra pay — although both were helpful. Rather, they needed support and recognition from the whole community, resources and tools to improve as professionals, and school leaders who could help them help their students.

The pay incentives didn’t attract many new teachers, Silva says, but they were “a way of signaling that the local community valued the Benwood teachers and supported their work.”

Silva says that though the district made all teachers in the Benwood schools re-apply for their jobs, the majority were re-hired and the teaching staff in these schools did not change significantly, although the numbers she cites suggest that the re-hiring process was more than just letting go of a few bad apples.

If cleaning house and providing performance incentives weren’t wholly responsible for improvement, what was? The answer is all the more crucial given the blitz of new and expanded merit pay plans, teacher-linked data collection, and aggressive evaluation of teachers in districts across the country.

Silva believes it was a host of reforms focusing on supporting teachers and improving their practice. The district surveyed teachers and principals already deemed effective on the basis of test scores or principal nominations to find out what they required to be successful:

Topping the list for principals was better staff morale and better quality teachers. Teachers suggested more opportunities for collaboration, mentor and peer support, constructive principal feedback, and more time for instruction and lesson preparation.

In response, they created new support positions, from literacy coaches and consulting teachers who worked with teachers to leadership coaches who worked with administrators and school leadership teams. They also provided a good deal of professional development to help teachers understand and use data to improve student achievement. A number of organizations also offered money for free masters degrees for teachers, middle and high school improvement, and student programs such as mentoring.

Silva points to surveys showing improved retention, high satisfaction with working conditions at the Benwood schools, and increased effectiveness of individual teachers (as measured by Tennessee’s value-added analysis) as evidence that it was the teacher-centered reform that really made the difference in improving outcomes in Chattanooga.

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.