Tennessee

New school year kicks off with big changes, big goals

Students check their schedules in 2014 at Fairley High, a turnaround school in Memphis under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

The start of the 2014-15 school year Monday marked the first day that eight districts—Shelby County Schools, which includes Memphis and some of the surrounding county, six new school districts in the Memphis suburbs, and the state-run Achievement School District—will operate simultaneously in this corner of southwestern Tennessee.

The stakes are high for schools across the county. Shelby County Schools has set a goal to dramatically improve the district’s graduation rate and academic performance in the next decade. The district’s lowest-performing schools are eligible to be taken over by the state.

The Achievement School District, which aims to dramatically improve academics in schools that were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, is entering its third year and striving for increased stability and consistent results across its schools.

And the new districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, and Millington are hoping to prove that their first year will go smoothly—and that the creation of their districts were worth the legal back-and-forth and debate that have dominated the public conversation around schools for more than three years.

Chalkbeat Tennessee visited schools in Shelby County Schools, the ASD, and two of the six new suburban school systems to see how the first day of school went.

Shelby County Schools

The first day of school often means a review of rules and procedures, but many teachers across the county hit the ground running to gauge what students know and which techniques they should use this year to get them to where they need to be.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II toured classrooms where students were working on writing assignments and others where teachers were reviewing mathematical formulas.

Hopson said his goal this year is to “figure out a way to drastically improve student literacy and academics overall.”

Hopson spent the first day of classes visiting the brand-new Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, A.B. Hill Elementary, Riverview K-8 and Germantown Elementary.

While visiting A.B. Hill, Hopson along with his administration team and the school’s principal Veronica Parish walked in the surrounding neighborhood taking note of the blight in the area where students live.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary.  He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II tours the neighborhood around A.B. Hill Elementary. He is accompanied by his administrative team as well as SCS Board member Chris Caldwell and members of local media.

“When I’m in schools like A.B. Hill that have only a handful of students, I understand the feeling the community has of ‘don’t close our school,'” Hopson said.

He called schools ‘a beacon of hope’ in communities like A.B. Hill that have been stricken by poverty. Hopson has often said that providing students with quality educational opportunities is the only way to stop the cycle of poverty in Memphis’ hard-struck areas.

Hopson praised A.B. Hill principal Veronica Parish for increasing student growth in the midst of facing district changes to grade configurations at her previous school, Riverview Elementary, which is now a kindergarten through eighth grade school under principal Rosalind Martin.

At Riverview, Hopson was greeted by Martin, who was dressed in full military fatigues as part of this year’s theme of “Bootcamp to Improve Student Literacy.”

“I love your theme for literacy,” Hopson told the principal.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday.  Martin said her school's theme this year is "Bootcamp to Improve Literacy."  Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II talks academic goals with Riverview K-8 principal Rosalind Martin on the first day back to school Monday. Martin said her school’s theme this year is “Bootcamp to Improve Literacy.” Martin and her staff will wear their military gear each Monday during the school year.

Riverview’s K-8 configuration is new this year, the result of the merger of Riverview Elementary and Riverview Middle School. Martin had been the principal at Riverview Middle.

Riverview K-8 is also one of the district’s Innovation Zone schools, which means the school has more site-based initiatives that it can use to address low student performance.  The school will be one of the 16 sites that will participate in the blended learning pilot, which will put computers in students’ hands so they can continue learning at school and home.

Martin said the students have longer days and an hour-long intervention time in subjects where they need to improve.  Riverview is also using single-gender classrooms in some subject areas.  The impact has been fewer behavioral problems and improved performance, Martin said.

Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter’s new school year resolution is to work to improve his reading skills, the subject is not among his favorites.  Poindexter prefers math and hopes to become a football player or a veterinarian.

Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4.  Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Riverview seventh grader Anthony Poindexter Jr and his mother Lysandra Bradford filled out his registration paperwork on the first day of school on Aug. 4. Poindexter plans to work harder in reading this year.

 

Achievement School District

Students at Fairley High School returned to a familiar, but somewhat different campus now that their school is operated by Green Dot, a state-approved charter operator. Fairley, which had been placed on the state’s priority list after ranking in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, is officially part of the Achievement School District rather than Shelby County Schools now.

The school is still called Fairley High School, and it is still required to serve all students who would have attended the school when it was part of Shelby County Schools. As of late Monday morning, some 500 students were at school. School leaders had planned for more than 600 students, and are hoping more students will enroll in the next few weeks.

Students on their first day back Monday said they were adjusting to the changes, which included new paint and classroom numbers. In some hallways, old pictures of the school mascot, a bulldog had been painted over; in others, new versions of the mascot had been “tattoed” onto the wall.

Early in the day, a group of seniors helped direct younger students to their new classes.

The students were also adjusting to new teachers. In one classroom, a teacher on her very first day called roll. “I might not pronounce all of your names correctly,” she said.

Megan Quaile, the chief growth officer for Green Dot, which also runs schools in California, said, “ACT scores at the school need to go up. But we also want kids to want to be here.” Green Dot is tasked with improving the school’s academic performance dramatically.

One wrinkle Monday morning: Buses, provided by Durham School Services, were running close to 40 minutes late.

Before school started, Fairley teachers wrote individual resolutions for the new school year. Their resolutions, along with community members’ and students’, will be posted in the halls of the school.

James Sullivan, a former Shelby County Schools teacher who is now teaching Algebra 1 at Green Dot, said that he hopes to increase his students’ ACT scores so far.

The six schools that are directly run by the Achievement School District in the Frayser neighborhood also opened Monday. This is the ASD’s third year running schools, and the first year that the ASD has not added additional direct-run schools. Ash Solar, director of the direct-run schools, said school leaders were glad to be able to focus on improving schools and sharing best practices rather than on starting up new ones.

Six new charter schools, and 23 school altogether, are part of the ASD this year.

Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Fairley High School teachers wrote resolutions for the new year.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more - especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school's building.
Student Jasmine Jeffries, a senior, says her goal for the new year is to learn more – especially in AP government. She was struck by all the changes to the school’s building.
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Municipal School Districts

In their inaugural year as independent school districts, not just students and teachers but leaders and administrators had an especially nervous and exciting first day in Lakeland and Arlington.
Parents at Lakeland elementary bought last minute supplies from the school store, hugged their students goodbye and then Principal Joretha Lockhart gave her first welcome on the intercom.

Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Students in Spanish IV discuss their goals for the year at Arlington High School on the first day of school.
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they're able to consolidate the students into fewer routes
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Employees documented how many students got off each bus and what time they arrived. Superintendent Ted Horrell said he hopes that they’re able to consolidate the students into fewer routes

The pressure to keep performance high is also a factor for Arlington High, a high performing school last year.
“It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay on top,” said Chris Duncan, principal. “Put the things in place to give opportunities for kids to succeed.”

But the first day ran smoothly, he said: if you hadn’t been reading the papers or watching the news, you wouldn’t have known that anything was different this year.

Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Last year students complained that the cafeteria food was bad and they are hoping that the new district will bring better quality food.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.