TCAP

More Memphis schools move off state’s list of low scorers

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Two years into a push to raise test scores in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, some of the most notable gains were concentrated in Memphis — and in schools that were not subject to the state’s most intensive interventions.

The findings come from the new list of 85 “priority schools” — or schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide — released by the Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday. The list suggests that some schools in the bottom 5 percent in 2012 jumped forward without a significant overhaul, even as the state and local districts revamped other schools’ staffs, programs, and operations.

That outcome raises questions about which strategies are most effective as the state plans to expand its efforts to improve struggling schools. But state and district officials said they were satisfied with their progress up to now, noting that the bottom 5 percent of schools this year scored higher than the bottom 5 percent two years ago.

Indeed, the test score gains by schools in the bottom 5 percent were larger than the state’s overall gains over the last two years.

“This is hard work, but results from the first round … show us that it’s doable,” said state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We’ve seen signs of hope and that’s why we believe it is critical to continue investing in these schools.”

Tennessee promised to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent when it applied for a waiver from some federal education rules. The new list suggests that the goal remains ambitious: A full 50 of the 83 schools on the 2012 priority list are still on the list now, and once again all schools on the priority list serve mostly poor students.

And the trajectories of schools that landed on the first list do not at first glance offer any clear clues about the best approach to boosting performance.

Schools on the priority list can be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District or placed in a special turnaround group within a district, known as an Innovation Zone or Innovation Cluster, which grants schools additional fund as well as new staffs, schedules, academic programs. But not all schools on the list undergo formal changes.

Of the 83 schools on the 2012 list, 17 have been turned into ASD-run schools; 17 joined innovation zones; and nine, including three alternative schools, were closed outright. Thirty-eight schools — including 22 in Shelby County and three Memphis charter schools — received no intervention other than the regular school improvement strategies in place in their districts.

Some schools that fell into each of these categories boosted scores enough to get off the priority list.

The 13 schools in Shelby County’s “Innovation Zone” fared best. Six of them, or nearly half, improved so much that they are no longer at risk of state takeover.

The three Memphis charter schools and nine of the 22 Shelby County Schools that were not closed, placed in the I-Zone or added to the ASD are also no longer on the priority list.

That was true for just one of the four schools that Nashville placed into its “Innovation Cluster.”

In the state-run ASD, two of the six schools the district took over two years ago—one in Memphis, one in Nashville—were no longer in the bottom 5 percent. The schools the district added last year were not eligible to come off of the list due to state rules, while three ASD elementary schools do not appear on the new list because they do not have tested grades.

Of the 85 schools on the new list, just 59 are in Memphis, including nine that the district no longer runs — down from 69 two years ago. Eleven Nashville schools joined the list for the first time.

“The good news is that Memphis had a lot of schools moving off the list,” said Barbara Prescott, a former Memphis City Schools board member who is now the director of the PeopleFirst initiative.

Kevin Woods, the chair of Shelby County Schools’ board, said the strong showing by Memphis schools reflects the fact that the district supports all of its schools, not just the ones that it tries to overhaul.

“The results we are seeing reflect the work of strong and stable school leadership,” he said. “The results are not just in our I-Zone schools but in many of our schools that have chosen to recruit and retain the best teachers while also using data to drive decision-making.”

And the head of the state’s largest teacher group said the new list showed that existing schools could also improve students’ performance without shaking up their staffs.

“The teachers and administrators are going above and beyond trying to provide a quality education to all the students and our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, a former Shelby County Schools administrator and the new president of the Tennessee Education Association, in an interview. “We need to invest in our traditional public schools.”

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said he was satisfied because the previous list had been a wake-up call that moved the state in the right direction.

“When we see a sense of urgency that didn’t exist before, that’s great. The days of having a failing school for a decade are over,” Barbic said. “Part of the value of the ASD is the existential threat of the ASD: If your school doesn’t get better it’s going to get taken away. ”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the percent of schools  that had come off of the priority list in some districts. Some schools in the ASD were not eligible to be removed from the list. It also listed the TEA’s Ms. Gray as a former Memphis City rather than Shelby County administrator. The post has been updated to reflect those changes. 

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Facilities

These 102 schools failed latest round of ‘blitz inspections’

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of 102 schools that will have to be reinspected.

Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that 102 schools will require reinspection for cleanliness before students return to class in the fall. The district has been conducting “blitz inspections” at schools to help address widespread concerns about filthy conditions, including rats and rodent droppings.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the year that complaints of a rodent infestation at a South Side elementary school had spurred an initial round of investigations, and that 91 of 125 schools failed them. The story brought citywide attention to the issue and raised questions about CPS’ decision to transition the work of keeping schools clean to two private contractors: Aramark, which is based in Philadelphia, and SodexoMAGIC, which is a joint venture between the French company Sodexo Inc. and Beverly Hills, California,-based Magic Johnson Enterprises.

Since 2014, the district has spent more than $400 million on contracts with the two companies.

CPS said in a statement Tuesday that it is “committed to carrying out a multi-pronged plan” that includes adding 200 additional custodians who are deep cleaning schools this summer. Of those, 100 custodians will remain with the district once the new school year begins. A district spokeswoman said monthly inspections will continue and that a “stronger facilities services structure” that employs one building manager to oversee janitorial and engineering services at each school will yield better results.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the additional custodians do little to make up for the mess. “(Mayor Rahm) Emanuel made a token commitment to increase full-time custodial staff by 100 next fall—about a tenth of the staff that was cut when (he) moved to privatize janitorial and facilities management services for CPS, and a fraction of what’s needed,” Sharkey said in a statement.

Schools that have not yet passed an inspection have received orders for actions, structures, and timelines for improvement, the district said. CPS does not inspect charter, contract, alternative, or options schools that operate outside of district-managed facilities.

Here’s a list of the schools that require reinspection.

ADDAMS
ALCOTT ES
ALDRIDGE
ASHBURN
AZUELA
BARTON
BELMONT-CRAGIN
BENNETT
CAMERON
CANTY
CARDENAS
CARROLL-ROSENWALD
CASTELLANOS
CHICAGO AGRICULTURE HS
CLINTON
COOK
COONLEY
CORLISS HS
CURTIS
DAVIS M
DUBOIS
DUNNE
DURKIN PARK
EARHART
EARLE
ELLINGTON
ERICSON
FAIRFIELD
FORT DEARBORN
FOSTER PARK
FRAZIER PROSPECTIVE
GALLISTEL
GARVY
GOETHE
HALEY
HARVARD
HAUGAN
HEARST
HEFFERAN
HOLMES
HOPE HS
HOPE INSTITUTE
HURLEY
IRVING
JACKSON M
JOPLIN
JORDAN
KENNEDY HS
KERSHAW
KIPLING
LANE TECH HS
LANGFORD
LAVIZZO
Lee Elementary
MARSHALL HS
MASON
MAYS
MCDOWELL
MCKAY
MORGAN PARK HS
MORRILL
MULTICULTURAL HS
NOBLE – COMER
NORTHSIDE LEARNING HS
NORTHSIDE PREP HS
NORTHWEST
OGLESBY
OTIS
OWENS
PARKER
PARKSIDE
PENN
PETERSON
POE
PRITZKER
PULLMAN
REVERE
RICKOVER MILITARY HS
RUDOLPH
RUGGLES
SCAMMON
SKINNER West
SMITH
SOUTH SHORE ES
SOUTH SHORE INTL HS
SPRY ES
SULLIVAN HS
SUTHERLAND
TAFT HS
TARKINGTON
TAYLOR
TELPOCHCALLI
THORP J
URBAN PREP – WEST HS
VOLTA
WASHINGTON H ES
WASHINGTON HS
WEBSTER
WELLS ES
WESTINGHOUSE HS
WHITNEY
WILDWOOD