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.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.