Days leading up to ASD decision in Nashville filled with meetings, concern

After a tumultuous experience this fall in Memphis, the Achievement School District is using a different strategy to choose which school it will take over in Nashville.

The timeline in Nashville is shorter:While in Memphis, meetings with teachers and parents started almost two months before ASD officials will make their final decisions, Nashvillians had less than three weeks, one of which was shortened by Thanksgiving.

The pool is smaller: The ASD will only intervene in one school in Nashville — either Madison Middle Prep or Neely’s Bend Middle Prep — versus at least nine in Memphis. In Nashville, there is only one possible charter operator.

And the outreach by ASD officials and educators from LEAD Public Schools, the charter organization that will take over the school, is more focused: Rather than targeting the entire community, they’re phoning and visiting fourth-grade parents, whose children would be the first ones to attend the school post-takeover.

For LEAD officials, the weeks since the ASD announced its impending takeover have been filled with meetings with elected officials and teachers, open houses, and phone calls, all part of an effort to educate the community about their schools.

But for many teachers and parents in Madison, where both middle schools are located, the weeks have been filled with concern and confusion. Why are Neely’s Bend and Madison being considered for state takeover, rather than lower performing schools which have been on the priority list for multiple years? What factors are being taken into account in the decision between the two schools? What happens next?

Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which contains the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The ASD aims to to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 25.

Timing of meetings questioned

“I think it would have been nice to have more notice,” said Jill Speering, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board member who represents both Neely’s Bend and Madison. Speering is concerned about Thursday, when both parent input meetings are at the same time. “Having both meetings the same night is a tactic to disregard the community voice,” she said.

ASD officials say the decision was strategic — but rather than hoping to stifle the community voice, they want to magnify parents’ voices.

When Speering raised her concerns to Chris Barbic, the ASD superintendent, he replied in an e-mail that, “Given the main intent [of the Dec. 4th meetings] —a focused conversation with parents who are zoned for these schools—holding both meetings at the same time creates no major conflicts.”

He said that he could try to extend one of the meetings, or videotape both, so Speering and the state representative for Madison, Bill Beck, could participate in both meetings.

He cited hotel costs as another reason to have both meetings the same night. Most of the ASD staff live in Memphis.

ASD chief operating officer Elliot Smalley said that a desire to have parents dominate the discussion over which school will be taken over — rather than teachers, as has been the case in Memphis — caused ASD officials  to rebrand the meetings as “parent meetings” rather than “community meetings,” which is what they called the equivalent meetings in Memphis.

Facebook posts, shared by both Speering and fellow board member Amy Frogge, as well as dozens of other Nashville residents, urged people from across Nashville to attend Thursday’s meetings, because “it is anticipated that the school which has the least amount of community support will be taken over by the Achievement School District.”

But Smalley said that isn’ttrue — it’s about the quality of feedback from parents, not the quantity. He said officials would be listening for what parents like about their current neighborhood school and want to maintain, and what they don’t like.

Decision will be ASD’s alone

Although Smalley said that parent feedback would be an important factor in the officials’ final decisions, he said that in the end, the fate of Madison and Neely’s Bend will be decided by ASD officials alone. In Memphis, the final decisions about takeovers also belong to ASD officials, but they first hear recommendations from the Achievement Advisory Council, a group of parent and community volunteers from the Memphis community.

Legally, the ASD could decide which schools to take over without input from anyone else. But ASD officials did narrow their list to Neely’s Bend and Madison as a direct consequence of feedback from Metro Nashville officials and the leaders of LEAD, Smalley said.

LEAD is the only charter operator authorized by the ASD to open a school in Nashville that is interested in doing so, and was only interested in transforming a middle school. That narrowed possible Nashville schools to the five middle school on the priority list.

The lowest performing of those schools, Bailey STEM Magnet Middle Prep, is in the midst of a several-year turnaround effort by Metro Schools, and so Metro Schools officials asked that the ASD leave it untouched. Another middle school, Jere Baxter Middle Prep, is under-enrolled, and the ASD wanted to takeover a fully enrolled school, to make the biggest impact possible.

A third middle school on the priority list, Joelton Middle Prep, achieved the highest possible growth rating by the state last year — a Level 5 — indiciating to ASD officials that it didn’t need to be taken over. That left Neely’s Bend and Madison, Smalley said.

But many teachers and parents in Madison  say they feel like those schools were on the right track, too.

The passing rates on last year's math TCAP for Lead's schools and Neely's Bend and Madison show that Lead schools outperformed  the traditional schools it might takeover — but not as much as some parents would like.
PHOTO: Tn.gov
The passing rates on last year’s math TCAP for Lead’s schools and Neely’s Bend and Madison show that Lead schools outperformed the traditional schools it might takeover — but not as much as some parents would like. (Click to enlarge.)

On Nov. 20, Christy King, a teacher at Madison, told Chalkbeat that the gains Madison made last year were not enough, but she felt they were an upward trend without state intervention. This year, the school system devoted $94,500 to turnaround programs at Madison, and more than $280,000 at Neely’s Bend.

Although their overall growth scores from the state were ones, the lowest level, both Madison and Neely’s Bend posted level 5 gains in numeracy skills in 2013-2014 — Neely’s Bend for growth in numeracy skills over two years, and Madison for growth in one year.

Brittney Garland is the mother of two students at Neely’s Bend Elementary, which feeds into Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, and an alumni of Neely’s Bend Middle Prep. She said she decided to move her family back to Madison specifically because of her positive experience at the schools in the area.

“These are good neighborhood schools,” she said.

A comparison of Lead Public Schools' 2013-2014  pass rates on the Reading TCAP, and Neely's Bend and Madison's.
A comparison of Lead Public Schools’ 2013-2014 pass rates on the Reading TCAP, and Neely’s Bend and Madison’s. (Click to enlarge.)

Because her oldest child is in the third grade, she did not receive phone calls or letters about the meetings next week.  She said that concerned her, since her son will also be affected if the ASD chooses Neely’s Bend. An active member of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, she said  few elementary school parents were aware of possible changes to their zoned middle school.

Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, said that he and other ASD and LEAD personnel thought long and hard about the scope of their outreach, and whether to reach out to parents of younger children. Ultimately, he said, they wanted to limit confusion, and avoid the perception that a decision had already made. Reynolds said that once a decision has been made, LEAD teachers and administrators will mail a letter to all elementary parents in the zone, and knock on every family’s door in the chosen school’s zone.

‘Why would we want to go backwards?’

But Reynolds said he still hopes that parents of younger students, like Garland, show up on Thursday.

“I encourage all families in the neighborhood zone to come out and share their views and learn about LEAD,” he said. “It’s important that we hear from families in the zone, because those are the people we’ll eventually serve.”

Garland said she was also concerned to learn that the average passing rates across the Achievement School District are lower than either Neely’s Bend or Madison.

“Why would we want to go backwards?” she said.

Reynolds said that the most relevant comparisons for parents in Madison to make are to the Nashville schools that Lead has already moved into, Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep.

“I think that’s a relevant comparison because those are zoned enrollment schools that serve all children and provide transportation to all kids, and are the model that we’re basing Madison or Neely’s Bend on,” he said.  “So that’s the real comparison, and our outcomes speak to themselves.”

Another LEAD middle school, Lead Academy, has been tapped by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for persistently low test scores. Unlike Cameron or Brick Church, the enrollment of that school is not limited to students who live in a residential zone. Reynolds said that it was also a relevant comparison for parents to make, though.

“It’s not the same type of school, but that’s our lowest performing campus, and our results are still significantly higher than Neely’s Bend or Madison,” he said.

The parent meetings are at 5:30 on Thursday at each school. Lead Public Schools are hosting open houses at Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10.

Clarification: This article was updated to reflect the role of the Achievement Advisory Council.

For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

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.