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.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.