double jeopardy

Turnaround seen as threat to Smith's shrinking career programs

Scott Pagan, an electrical engineering teacher, speaks at Alfred E. Smith's closure hearing.

Plans to close and reopen Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School using turnaround, the controversial school reform model, could leave this year’s juniors without state certification in the fields they have been studying for the past three years.

For the students and their teachers, Smith’s turnaround hearing marked a return to the front lines of a battle they thought they won two years ago, when the school was narrowly spared from closure.

After initially proposing to phase the school out, the city opted to keep Smith open but downsize it by eliminating all of its career and technical programs but one: automotive technology. Five other CTE programs — in carpentry, electrical engineering, ventilation and air conditioning, plumbing, and pre-engineering — would close over time.

This year’s juniors would be the last to earn certification in those programs, entitling them to a license to work in some industries immediately after graduation. The school has continued to maintain a staff to help them through their career coursework.

But under turnaround, the school that replaces Smith will constitute a new staff, drawing from Smith’s faculty roster and elsewhere to find teachers to meet its needs.

If multiple teachers choose not to reapply for their jobs or are not selected during the hiring process — a conceivable outcome because the replacement school might not want to hire teachers for programs that would not exist after one year — Smith’s career programs could be severely affected. State certification for CTE programs requires schools to offer particular courses and have teachers with certain credentials.

Department of Education officials told attendees at last night’s closure hearing that it is not guaranteed that Smith’s replacement school would be certified to offer the technical programs. But the officials — who included the department’s former top CTE executive, Gregg Betheil — repeatedly assured families that students “should” still be able to receive CTE diplomas in coming years. They said they are encouraging teachers to gain certification to teach across disciplines so that no single program has a shortfall of qualified teachers and that they expected the state to sign off on the programs again.

That information was not comforting to Robert Matthew, a junior in the electrical engineering program who said he has felt called to the trade since he was a toddler watching his father, an electrician, at work.

“What about my CTE diploma that I’ve worked so hard for? … What are we supposed to do with the 14 spare credits?” Matthew asked at the hearing. “I can withstand bullying. But I’ve never been able to tolerate someone taking away my dreams.”

In recent years the city has worked to improve vocational offerings by shuttering CTE programs in shrinking industries and struggling schools and opening new ones in fields where jobs are likely to be plentiful. In the same January State of the City address where Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans, he vowed to further refocus the city’s CTE efforts. Today, the mayor is slated to tout a new school that will train students to program computer software.

Smith’s restructuring was part of the city’s shifting CTE priorities. In 2010, department officials cited the school’s partnerships with several local car dealerships of several car companies and its prominence as the Bronx’s only school with a large automotive program when they decided to keep that program open. Now, the department is waiting for state officials to certify the automotive program and a new collision repair program.

Smith has been struggling for well over a decade. The state identified it as one of New York’s lowest-performing schools in 1999, and last year the school had one of the highest rates of weapons possession.

Thomas Newton, a special education English teacher and a United Federation of Teachers delegate, said turnout to the hearing was low — fewer than 50 people attended — in part because it was held the day after spring break, and many students did not show up at school earlier in the day. He spent the evening next to an empty seat that was reserved for a representative of the Community Education Council for District 7.

At Smith's closure hearing, the auditorium stage displayed the hood of a car that students designed and painted with a detailed emblem and the school's name.

Newton was joined in front of the auditorium by principals from two schools that recently opened in Smith’s building: Matthew Williams of Bronx Design and Construction Academy and Lucinda Mendez of Bronx Haven High School, which enrolls transfer students who have fallen behind at other high schools.

Mendez offered a tempered defense of Smith. “I just want to state the obvious: that a school is more than a name, it’s more than a number, it’s more than a building,” she said. “A school is a community of individuals, including staff and students who come together daily to grow, learn, support, thrive, comfort, etc. It’s a home away from home for most if not for all.”

Mendez added, “Smith is a community with deep roots. They go as far back as some of the teachers having been students at the school. I hope that students who come back to the school will be able to recognize peoples’ faces. Because whatever changes you make, if that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Smith’s longtime principal, Rene Cassanova, would have to be replaced under the rules of the turnaround model. Cassanova did not speak during the hearing and declined to be interviewed. But teachers said the department had already introduced them to a proposed new principal.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede