charter schools

A new role for Memphis charters: Educating “nontraditional” students

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Pathways, in Frayser - a new alternative school that is part of the ASD.

As Shelby County Schools plans to dramatically reshape its alternative school program, several new charter schools aimed at educating nontraditional students and students who have been expelled or suspended from public schools in Memphis have opened their doors, and more are on the way.

  • Memphis could be one of the first expansion sites for Excel Academies, a charter school run by Goodwill Charities, aimed at getting dropouts to earn high school diplomas that lead to better jobs. The group applied for a charter from Shelby County Schools in early April. (Read more here)
  • The state-run Achievement School District has contracted with Pathways In Education, which serves both middle school and high school students who have been removed from their regular school, and also offers classes for those who had dropped out of school altogether. The state-run ASD has also made public the fact that it is looking for additional alternative school charter schools. (Read more here)
  • Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is in his first year running the Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools. Two of those were aimed at at-risk students: The school has partnered with the local government to connect to young boys who are on probation. One of those has closed.

Lili Allen, the ‎director of Back on Track Designs at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that consults with organizations working with disconnected or off-track young people, said the flexibilities granted to charter schools – they have control over their budget, hiring, schedule, and curriculum – can be useful for schools hoping to educate students who are off-track, who have been expelled or suspended, or who are otherwise disconnected from school. “We would never say you have to be a charter, but the structure can be quite useful for schools serving this population.”

“Too often, district alternative schools will be asked to just offer exactly what the district offered as repeater course,” she said. “So having flexibility to redesign the curriculum is a critical thing. Similarly, the flexibility around budget is really important. When you’re trying to meet the particular needs of young people coming in behind, who may face additional barriers, having the right budget flexibility can allow you to staff the school appropriately, to get a mix of online instruction and face-to-face instruction, to personalize reports.”

Proponents of the new schools say they will help fill a gap in the Memphis education landscape. Some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have a high school diploma, according to data from the U.S. Census, and another 7,200 students drop out each year. About 1,900 students attend the district’s alternative programs, though that number fluctuates, and 3.8 percent of the legacy Memphis City’s student population was expelled in 2012-13, according to the state’s report card.

Just how to reach and serve students who have dropped out or who are at risk of leaving school has been an area of focus in Memphis and nationally. Shelby County is hoping to increase its graduation rate from around 67 percent (legacy Memphis City Schools’ graduation rate for the 2012-13 school year) to 90 percent by 2025. The district’s plan to revamp its alternative school programs includes a stronger focus on returning students to traditional schools.

Both Pathways and Goodwill would offer high school diplomas to students, not a GED. Diploma-holders are more likely to attend college than holders of a GED.

Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that serving at-risk students is a “traditional role” for charter schools – Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington are among the cities that have charter schools for “nontraditional” students. He said most of the models had been developed from the “ground up,” responding to community needs. But these new schools are the first charter schools in Memphis to fill that role.

Traditional alternative schools in Shelby County serve students who have been expelled or suspended from their regular schools. According to the district’s student handbook, Shelby County’s alternative schools adhere as closely as possible to the academic program at a student’s home school, though they may offer additional services or supports to meet students’ “nontraditional needs.” State law requires districts to have alternative schools for these students.

The new alternative schools each aim to work with slightly different groups of students. Pathways and Goodwill have programs for those who have already dropped out of school. Pathways also has middle and high school students who have been remanded from their regular schools or those who may be pregnant, dramatically overage or academically behind, or otherwise at risk of dropping out. Herenton’s schools were focused on students returning from the justice system or students who are currently incarcerated.

Funding the new schools can have unexpected wrinkles. The schools receive state and federal funds for each student they enroll. Dropout recovery in particular means the government may be funding schools for more adults out of money usually slated for children and teenagers. In Indiana, for instance, the state implemented a $25 million cap on spending for dropout recovery charter schools after being surprised by their popularity.

Oversight and accountability in these schools presents unique challenges, too: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers released a report late last year highlighting the specific oversight necessary for alternative charter schools, which it says are becoming increasingly common.

In Tennessee, test scores of students in alternative schools have traditionally been counted for the regular school the student last attended. Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, said that it wasn’t entirely clear how accountability would work for a school like Goodwill’s, which has not yet been approved.

Margo Roen, the New Schools Director for the state-run Achievement School District, said the ASD contracted with Pathways and announced that it was searching for new alternative school operators after analyzing where there was need in Memphis. “There’s a lack of alternative models in Memphis…We need to make sure that just because a student is behind academically, or if they’ve been remanded because of a zero tolerance policy, they still have options,” she said.

Though the ASD believes there is a need for still more alternative school options in Memphis, no additional alternative school operators applied to open schools in the ASD next year, Roen said.

Goodwill is looking to bring its model to Memphis after seeing some success in Indianapolis. “We had great response from their political leaders and community organizations,” Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill’s Education Initiatives in Indianapolis.

Jobs For the Future’s Allen said it is important that programs are more than just online-only credit recovery programs. “Are they using the charter flexibilities to put in place the right programming that we know these young people are using to succeed? It’s a great potential opportunity but doesn’t guarantee success.”

A closer look at Pathways and Goodwill, visit these links:

Reach this reporter at [email protected] 

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who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen FariƱa's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured

 

When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.