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.

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.