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.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”