charter schools

Achievement School District adds alternative schools to mix

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Inside Pathways' Frayser school.

The Achievement School District, which currently runs 15 schools in Memphis, opened its first alternative school this January.

Most schools in the Achievement School District (ASD) are former Shelby County Schools that are now being run as charter schools. The ASD has been tasked with taking schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state – most of which are in Memphis – and improving them enough to push them into the top 25 percent in the state. But the new alternative school, Pathways In Education, started from scratch in a storefront in Frayser.

The first Pathways school was in Pasadena, Calif. The program has other campuses in California and in Chicago. Its other programs focus mainly on helping off-track or disconnected high schoolers attain their high school diplomas. Its Memphis program offers course recovery and classes for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults.

Pathways, in Frayser - now enrolling
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Pathways’ building in Frayser.

By early April, Pathways had 157 students in Memphis. Thirty percent were adults; 40 percent were high schoolers; and 30 percent are 7th and 8th graders, according to Jennifer Isom, the principal of the Memphis campus. Isom said 48 adults were on a wait list for the program.

There has been such demand that the district plans to open a second campus in Whitehaven this summer.

The ASD has about 4,000 students overall this year.

We did some analysis to see where was still a need. There’s a lack of alternative options in Memphis,” said Margo Roen, the director of new schools for the ASD.  “There’s no point when a family shouldn’t have a choice.”

“We also were looking at New Orleans, [where the state-run Recovery School District has a similar model to the ASD and found after several years that it needed to run alternative schools],” she said. “We are trying to be ahead of where they were and see (if) there is a need.”

Earlier this year, the ASD announced that it was looking to add alternative charter school operators in Shelby County. They did not get any applications this year, but Roen said she is hopeful that there will be qualified applicants in future years.

Roen said the school could only serve students zoned to schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. A bill that would allow students zoned to higher-performing schools to attend the ASD did not pass the state legislature this spring.

Below, Pathways’ principal, Jennifer Isom, talks about the program’s potential and challenges; an academic recovery teacher, Jackie Williams, describes her work; and Tarance Kearney, a student, talks about his experience at the school.

“There is such a need.” ~ Jennifer Isom, Principal

Jennifer Isom worked in Memphis City Schools and in local private schools before becoming a principal at Pathways. She says the program’s flexible scheduling and one-on-one attention is helpful for Pathways students.

Students in the program take one or two courses at a time. Students meet with teachers for a few hours a week and commit to completing much of the work at home. Those with special needs and IEPs get more time with teachers. In April, many Pathways students were also preparing to take the state standardized test.

Jennifer Isom describes Pathways’ programs:

The program has drawn attention from people around Memphis, Isom said:

The students are mainly from Westside and Humes [two ASD schools], but we have students from all over – Bartlett, Cordova, Craigmont. They’ve heard through word of mouth, or somebody read the newspaper.

We have orientation meetings Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. We have 7-8 people come in each day and go through orientation with teachers and they enroll. That’s how we’ve grown so fast.

Isom said that charter schools tended to remand students at higher rates than regular district schools.

But the fastest-growing group at the school is adults. Jennifer Isom discusses how and why Memphis adults come to Pathways:

Pathways in Chicago and Los Angeles had traditionally focused on high schoolers. But the schools in Memphis also work with middle schoolers.

Part of the ASD contract was that we work with middle schooolers.

Many students come, and they are 15 years old in 7th grade. Therefore I can say, the system has failed them. Someone let this student sit in the classroom and be failed multiple times, wasn’t able to give them the knowledge they need to be promoted.

Many of those don’t even have an IEP (a plan for special education students.) And we’re like, why are you staying in 6th grade three times?

Using such an independent program with middle schoolers has presented some unique challenges, however. Pathways is planning to add small group teachers, but Isom says some of her youngest students may be better served in a more structured environment.

Isom describes the challenges in working with students who have been expelled or remanded from middle school school.

“This school is different.” ~ Tarance Kearney, student

Tarance, now 15, had been at Pathways for about 5 weeks in April. He was an 8th grader at Humes Middle School and was transferred to Pathways due to a combination of behavioral issues, clashes with teachers and administrators, and because he was too old for his grade, he said.

He wants to catch up on 9th- and 10th-grade coursework at Pathways and then go to a regular high school for his junior and seniors years of high school. Isom said many students want to have a “traditional” high school experience.

I went to Humes for 6th grade, and then my momma moved and I went to Westside. And then she moved again, so I went back to Humes.

When I was there, I didn’t like it.

This school is different.

How did you feel about coming to Pathways?

At first, I wanted to stay there. But I had to get in my right grade.

Tarance said he preferred the independence at Pathways.

Is it lonely working independently so much?

I feel okay because to be honest, I don’t love being around a lot of people. It makes me feel a certain kind of way. I like working independently.

How is it going so far?

I’m doing good – I learned science already, and I’m learning health and U.S. and world history now. I learned about volcanoes.

Your teacher told me each student has a goal. What’s your goal?

My goal is graduating out of school. And I want to play baseball.  

When asked where he thought he would be if Pathways didn’t exist, he said,

I think I’d probably be in my same school. Or they would have moved me to the 9th grade.

Video: Tarance, a student, talks about Pathways:

“We are just here to give students an opportunity.” ~ Jackie Williams, academic recovery teacher and special education teacher at Pathways

Jackie Williams came to Pathways from Shelby County Schools.

I kept seeing this job posting, and initially I didn’t pay it any attention, but I kept seeing it. It seemed different from working in a traditional setting. …But eventually I thought I’d reply. And I got a call back!

So of course I did my research – I googled and learned as much as I could about it…I met with a regional manager, we met downtown at a hotel because we didn’t even have a building yet.

So it was taking a chance. But I really felt like there’s a need for it – there are so many students who are 17, 18, 19, they get to that age and they leave high school. So we want to give them a second chance.

Williams describes Pathways’ students:

Academic recovery is for students who are behind – a lot of our students are behind in terms of – for middle schoolers they may be grade levels behind, for high schoolers they may not have adequate credits for their grade level. They may be 18 or 19 and still only have a few credits. So we help them to recover credits. But we also have students who are not necessarily behind but who chose to come to Pathways for one reason or another

For instance, we had a family and the mother said her kids had problems at their home school – there was a lot of bullying going on…It’s an option for parents who want to homeschool but want access to actual teachers.

I have one student who was four credits away from a high school diploma. For him to have come so close to graduating, and then to end up with his GED – I think he would have wasted four years. So for people like him, this is a very beneficial program.

You also have students who have continued to have behavioral problems and they even get kicked out of the regular alternative programs. This is an option for them.

At Pathways, we don’t judge a student’s past. We are just hear to give people an opportunity.

The program requires a lot of flexibility from its teachers, who are working with middle schoolers and adults.

Our populations run from age 12 to their 50s. With our older students..they’re more responsible, they’re more mature, they want it more – but in many cases they’re even more behind.

We have middle schoolers who came here because they thought that it would be like going to regular school but only two days a week. And it’s not that…it requires independence. So we are really working on parental involvement.

She says she thinks the students are learning. But there are some challenges.

It works well if a student is a fairly good reader: For high school students 5th grade level, for middle school students 3rd grade level – and that sounds low, but we do have a lot of people, a lot of children and some adults, who are reading on first and second grade level. For those students, we don’t have enough time in an hour, or even two hours, to go over a week’s worth of lessons.

If a student can’t read, they won’t make progress here because so much of it is on their own.

Schools don’t teach reading after 3rd grade. Students who have not learned to read at that point will struggle through school.

She said that she refers students who are so far behind pursue outside reading programs. “It’s hard,” she said.

Jackie talks about her experience at Pathways:

Update: The transcript of the conversation with Tarance Kearney has been updated.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.


School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.