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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.