Green Dot prepares to “transform” first school in Memphis

PHOTO: D. Burnette.
Fairley High School

Green Dot,  a charter management organization that runs 19 schools in Los Angeles, is planning to begin running its first school outside of California next year, right here in Memphis.

Green Dot is one of a number of national charter organizations that have been recruited to come to Tennessee as part of the Achievement School District, or ASD, a state-run district that sets out to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Most of those schools are in Memphis. Schools taken over by the ASD  have school-level autonomy over hiring, curriculum, and scheduling decisions, and most are being run by independent charter management organizations like Green Dot.

Green Dot will begin running Fairley High School, which is currently part of Shelby County Schools, next fall. The ASD “matched” Green Dot to Fairley in December, and the school will become part of the ASD in 2014-15. Students who attend Fairley now will still be zoned to the school, while teachers will need to apply to Green Dot to continue to work at Fairley.

Green Dot started out running an independent charter school, but has since “turned around” several low-performing schools in Los Angeles. (Green Dot described a day in the life of a student and a teacher on the ASD’s website.)

Green Dot's Megan Quaile.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Green Dot’s Megan Quaile.

Right now, Green Dot has exactly two employees in Memphis: Megan Quaile, a former principal who’s now Green Dot’s vice president of national expansion, and Miska Clay Bibbs, a former employee of Memphis City Schools who’s now Green Dot’s director of community engagement. But Green Dot is in the process of hiring a full school’s worth of employees and a Memphis-based administrative team, and could eventually run as many as 10 schools in the city.

Chalkbeat spoke with Quaile about why Green Dot chose Memphis, about finding the right people to turn around a high school, and on why Green Dot prefers to talk about “transforming” rather than “taking over” a school.

On expanding to Memphis:

We have 19 schools currently in L.A.. We felt ready to expand our mission. We’ve been in conversation with a significant number of cities, and created a process – a rubric [to help determine where to go]. Can we create a financially stable model? Is the law conducive to turnaround schools? Is there political will and community engagement? Is there a system in place and willingness for students to do that? Are there facilities? Human capital? Memphis came out strong…

We didn’t want to make whimsical decisions about growth.

On human capital in Memphis and in L.A.:

We can put systems in place, but if we don’t have right people at the table it’s not going to matter. My biggest concern is, are we going to get the right people? [In Los Angeles], we live in a city where we have a huge set of university systems. There’s an attractiveness to L.A. We just don’t know it here as well. It’s not that it’s not going to happen – we just don’t know. But there’s groups like

…Funding is better in Tennessee [than in California]. We used that to hire more supports, more coaches.

We will be hiring a principal very soon. We’re not hiring a Memphian just to hire a Memphian, but our final candidates are from here. … We’re starting teacher interviews soon, too. We will interview anyone from the school who applies. I’m not naive enough to think we’ll hear from every teacher, but we have talked to some who are interested.

 One difference: As part of the ASD, teachers won’t be unionized, whereas in L.A., Quaile says, “Green Dot’s teachers are purposely unionized.”

On collaboration between Green Dot schools:

We don’t want to be an organization that offers one-off schools. One of the things we value is collaboration. Our 19 campuses work well together – our principals meet every month, we do a lot of shared teacher PD (Professional Development). The hope was to build enough of a network in Tennessee to have similar collaboration, too. 

For now, Quaile said, some leadership and administrative staff will fly in from L.A. occasionally to run trainings and get things up and running in Memphis.

On collaboration between Green Dot and other charter schools within the ASD:

The attitude around collaboration [in the ASD] is 100% different [than in Los Angeles]. Here it’s very purposeful. [Charter leaders] meet on discipline, communications – all of us are up against confusion and misinformation- teachers. Those kinds of things are the most important for us to collaborate on. 

If one of our organizations fails, it looks bad for the ASD in general.

On perceptions of Green Dot and the ASD:

People know what the ASD is by now. They don’t know how an individual operator and the ASD work together. I think we’re all figuring that out.

I can tell you the rumors I’ve heard about Fairley. I’ve had students say, oh, you’re not going to have a football team, not going to have band, you’re not going to take special education students. That’s not true.

The one that shocked me was a student came in and said, I hear we’re not going to be allowed to graduate on a stage. That’s sad. 

…[At Fairley],  from what we could gather, they were a little surprised [that the school’s scores were low enough for it to become part of the ASD.] There was a bit of disbelief. 

On dealing with community unease:

Once you build a relationship with parents, those kinds of conversations tamper down a bit. It’s fair for parents to be concerned about what happens – they should be, we want them to be invested and protective. Those conversations tend to happen less frequently as the school builds relationships in the community.

How they’re planning for the transition:

We’re making a Fairley Transition Advisory Team, with four community members and community partners, four parents, four teachers. [That team will visit the LA office and talk through various decisions that still need to be made before school starts in the Fall.]

On turnarounds and hard work. 

People need to understand that the first few months will be very tough. We know this. It’s about getting people who are a unified front. It falls apart if it’s not.

On using the word transformation rather than takeover. 

We don’t don’t ever want students to feel it’s their fault their school’s being taken over, which can happen when that language is used. We say “transformation.”

On preparations:

Green Dot hasn’t spent much time in the school yet. Quaile and her team have visited several times since they were “matched.” For now, she’s still hoping to learn more about the school and its students – for instance, the school still needs to get transcripts so it can begin planning schedules and courses.

On opening enrollment in ASD schools up to any student:

If you live in Memphis and want to go to the school, I don’t know why we’d not allow you.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”