bring it on

In a politically charged town hall, Carranza tackles segregation, testing, and charter schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
At a town hall in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

In his more than two months in office, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has already found himself at the center of several explosive education debates, from integration, to testing, to the racial and ethnic make-up of the city’s vaunted specialized high schools.

All of those issues collided on Wednesday in a town hall in Brooklyn’s District 15, where parents and critics fired questions at the chancellor — and he answered each of them unflinchingly.

“In a public school system, there has to be as wide an opportunity as possible,” he said in answer to questions about the controversial proposal to change admissions standards at elite high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, an issue that drew the most fervent protesters to the meeting.

In fact, the ideological clashes began well before the first question was posed, with a crowd of Asian parents outside the school angrily protesting the plans. Currently, those schools accept students based on the results of a single test and enroll a strikingly disproportionate number of white and Asian students. The city has proposed to nix the exam to try to admit more black and Hispanic students, who make up a majority of the school system.

Dozens of parents opposing the change chanted, “Keep the test,” and, “Save our schools,” which prompted an angry response.

“Don’t say that!” someone yelled. “Save the schools from who?”

Some critics said the diversity efforts will negatively impact other ethnic groups who have worked hard to earn a place in specialized high schools. Stella Li, a parent who hopes her toddler will one day attend a specialized high school, said the city’s plans would destroy the academic rigor of the schools and shut out deserving students.

“A lot of kids from the poor families, the low income families, they will lose their opportunity for a better education,” she said. “I wish my kids can grow up in a fair environment which doesn’t have disparity.”

Despite the furor, Carranza unapologetically defended the city’s plan to integrate specialized high schools, hailed for their track record of sending students to Ivy League colleges and high-powered careers, saying they are “for everyone.”

His comments were met with jeers from the crowd. “No quotas!” someone yelled.

Faced with questions about plans percolating in District 15 to integrate middle schools — an issue that has led to a fiery debate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — Carranza got political. He said the country has failed to live up to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools separate and unequal, and pivoted to the current political climate.

“There’s an environment in our nation where it’s OK to say racist things,” he said.

He also tackled testing in a district with a strong opt-out movement of parents who refuse to let their students take standardized exams. Carranza has previously called the movement an “extreme” reaction. During the town hall, he said it’s true that tests have been overused in the past — but he also said that it’s important to determine whether students are learning.

“I respect parent’s rights. I don’t encourage parents not to have their students test,” he said. “Let’s make it better. It’s important to know how our students are doing.”

That wasn’t the end of the controversy, as Carranza faced questions from one of the education department’s most ardent foes: Success Academy charter school network. Dozens of parents showed up to push the city for more room in public school buildings to expand a school in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Though the de Blasio administration has had a rocky relationship with the charter sector, Carranza has made it a point to visit charter schools, including Success Academy, as he gets to know the city. On Wednesday, the chancellor assured parents that the education department has identified space available in Brooklyn schools to allow the network to continue is rapid expansion.

Carranza’s strident performance should come as no surprise: In his first two months on the job, he has proven far more willing take on controversial issues than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña

Just days into his tenure, he offered a pointed assessment of the mayor’s turn-around efforts for struggling schools. The chancellor has bluntly criticized parents fighting integration plans on the Upper West Side, and then told a mother who said she was offended by his comments to take an anti-bias course — on a live radio show. He described a fundamental way the city’s school system works — allowing some schools to “screen” students for admission based on their academic record — as “antithetical” to public education.

On Wednesday, he stuck to a script he has followed since arriving in New York City.

“The conversation around segregation is not divisive,” he said. “Because the conversation around integration is American.”

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 Memphis schools were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants this year to pay for extra resources — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status.

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be less punitive and more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources.

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

You can find the 2018 list here, but check back for a sortable list from Chalkbeat.

lists on lists

Tennessee just released its list of top-performing schools. Is your school on it?

PHOTO: Teach901
Archie Moss is principal of Bruce Elementary School, one of 39 Memphis schools named to the state's list of top-performers in 2018.

More than 300 schools in 85 districts were honored on Friday as Tennessee released its annual list of “reward” schools, the largest number of schools since the list was created.

This is only the second list of reward schools the state has published since 2015, and it’s the first year of using a new criteria based on:

  • State test and growth scores;
  • English language learner proficiency;
  • Chronic absenteeism;
  • Graduation rates and ACT test scores.

Previously, the Department of Education highlighted the 5 percent of schools that showed the most academic achievement and the 5 percent with the most annual growth.

Because of the new criteria, the number of reward schools this year, 318, is a big jump from the the 2017 list, which recognized 169 schools, and the 2015 list which consisted of 170. A 2016 list wasn’t created after some exams were canceled amid technical difficulties, creating a lack of test results.

Reward schools were named on the same day as the state’s 2018 priority schools, which rank at the state’s bottom on student achievement or with graduation rates less than 67 percent.

Shelby County Schools has 39 schools designated as reward schools, up from 13 last year.

“In this first year with our new system, it is incredibly encouraging to see more than 300 of our schools are earning reward status for how they are supporting our students’ academic achievement and growth,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Below is the 2018 reward list, which is sortable based on school and district. You can learn more on Tennessee’s accountability system here.