Future of Schools

ASD, priority schools in Memphis, Nashville land federal school improvement grants

Shelby County Schools and the state’s Achievement School District will receive federal School Improvement Grants to help support low preforming schools on the state’s priority list, the Tennessee Department of Education announced Monday.

The ASD will receive $1.3 million while Shelby County’s check will total $900,000.

Both districts have schools on the state’s priority list, meaning they’re among the 5 percent lowest performers in the state.

Shelby County Schools has 50 priority schools compared to the nine priority schools under the ASD.  Districts that applied for grants were awarded based on need.

“We looked at the strength of the application and track record of success,” said Ashley Ball, deputy director of communications for Tennessee Department of Education.

Shelby County Schools communications department told Chalkbeat Monday afternoon a specific spending plan had not been developed for the grant money.

In October Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district expected to receive a federal grant largely due to improvement efforts of iZone or Innovation Zone. The iZone is the district’s home-grown school turnaround effort , under whichschool leaders have the autonomy to hire teachers, create a longer school day, and make curriculum changes.

The ASD said its grant was earned by several of  public charter operators, which will open schools in 2015-16 academic year.  The schools have different plans for spending the money.

The federal grant money can be used, beginning in the 2015-16 school year, to help districts with community outreach, teacher and administrator recruitment and exploring additional resources.

“We believe this additional financial investment will help districts provide our Priority Schools with specific supports,” said education commissioner Kevin Huffman in Monday’s press release. “For the past several years, our state has been focused both on improving overall performance of all kids in Tennessee, while closing achievement gaps and supporting students that are the farthest behind; we have seen results from these efforts and are excited to help districts plan for additional interventions.”

Also receiving the grants were Metro Nashville Public Schools,$1.3 million; Knox County Schools $1 million; and Jackson-Madison County Schools, $400,000.

Metro Nashville has 15 schools on the state’s priority list, Knox County has four schools on the list and Jackson-Madison County has two schools included on the list.

Making ends meet

Detroit teachers who get second jobs to supplement low salaries might soon have to disclose those gigs

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Dawn McFarlin
Dawn McFarlin, shown here wearing a shirt from her T-shirt company, is one of many Michigan teachers with a second job.

Teachers in Detroit’s main school district could soon have to tell their supervisors if they are supplementing their salaries with a side job.

The school board’s policy committee last week approved a new policy that says the district  “expects employees to disclose outside employment” and bars employees from working a second job while on any kind of leave.

The policy, which will get more review, including a minimum of two reads before the full school board, before being adopted and put into practice, comes amid a wholesale overhaul of district rules. The school board is reviewing and implementing a host of new policies as part of the ongoing transition from the old Detroit Public Schools district to the new one, the Detroit Public Schools Community District.  

Frequent changes to district policies under the five emergency managers who ran the Detroit district in recent years means that it’s unclear whether the employment disclosure policy is new, although the rules for outside employment under the current employee code of ethics do not require employees to disclose their second jobs. It’s also unclear how many teachers and district staffers the policy might affect, whether any kinds of second jobs might be prohibited, and how the district might use information about teachers’ side gigs.

What is clear is that educators say intervening in teachers’ outside employment does not make sense, given how hard it is to make ends meet as a Detroit educator right now.

“The bottom line is until you start paying teachers enough money, until then, people have to do what they have to do to make ends meet,” said Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “It’s really none of their business about what teachers do on their off time unless it’s a conflict of interest.”

Such conflicts, in which a teacher’s second job might interfere with his or her ability to fulfill responsibilities to the district, are exactly why the policy is needed, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

“As we’re rebuilding the district, we really want to avoid as many conflict of interests as possible,” Vitti said. “We’ve seen instances where there are conflicts of interest at the district level at the school level with all employees, so we’re just trying to be proactive with the culture of the district.”

Vitti said the step is intended to “prevent some of the ills of the past,” though he did not offer any specific examples.

But the district’s history is littered with costly and embarrassing scandals that might have been averted if closer attention were being paid to employees’ outside jobs. In one extreme example, a district official created tutoring companies, then billed for services she never delivered.

Vitti also pointed out that many other districts require full disclosure of outside employment. His former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is not one of them, according to an employee handbook posted online. There, employees are not expected to disclose their outside employment, nor are they barred from working other jobs while on leave. But they are not allowed to sell anything to other teachers nor to parents of their students.

If implemented, the policy in Detroit could affect large numbers of teachers. About 19 percent of Michigan teachers reported having a second job as of 2014, according to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Detroit, where teacher pay is especially low, that number could be even higher. Vitti has vowed to increase teacher pay, and a new contract ratified last summer gave teachers their first real raise in several years. But that was not enough to bring teachers back to where they were when they took a 10 percent pay cut in 2011.

Dawn McFarlin, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, launched her T-shirt company as a side gig as a way make extra money. After years without a pay increase in the city’s schools, she’s now working in another district, but she’s still hawking shirts to her former colleagues. Her top tee says “I Teach in the D” on the front.

So far, she’s sold about 500 shirts at $25 each, mainly to friends and through her Facebook page. She said she uses the profits to pay bills and fund her children’s travel expenses for sports.

“As a teacher, I know how it feels to be in the grocery store, trying to make ends meet,” McFarlin  said. “I was thinking of the struggle teachers go through, and that’s how the shirt came about.”

Here’s the complete policy that the school board is considering. Board members will review the policy next at the full school board meeting in February, where the public can address the board.

“Outside employment is regarded as employment for compensation that is not within the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s regular position with the school system. Employees shall not be prohibited from holding employment outside the District as long as such employment does not result in a conflict of interest nor interfere with assigned duties as determined by the District.

The Board expects employees to disclose outside employment. The Board expects employees to devote maximum effort to the position in which employed. An employee will not perform any duties related to an outside job during regular working hours or for professional employees during the additional time that the responsibilities of the District’s position require; nor will an employee use any District facilities, equipment or materials in performing outside work.

When the periods of work are such that certain evenings, days or vacation periods are duty free, the employee may use such off-duty time for the purposes of non-school employment.

This policy prohibits outside supplemental employment while on any type of leave.”

testing testing

New York won’t apply for federal program that would have allowed for ‘innovative’ state tests

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A major makeover of the state’s English and math tests is not in the cards, top state education officials said Tuesday.

New York will not apply for a federal pilot program that would have allowed the state to experiment with different kinds of math and English tests for grades 3-8, officials announced Tuesday. Last May, the state indicated it would apply.

The decision — which was based on the state’s conclusion that developing new tests would be too expensive — largely shuts the door on major testing changes, such as having students complete projects or submit examples of their work.

Creating “innovative assessments” for the math and English tests is a “very, very, large project,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “If we did it in some other areas, I think that we would have a lot more success with less costs,” she said, referring to subjects like science and social studies, as well as the exams that high school students must pass in order to graduate.

The move is likely to rankle parents who have led the charge to boycott state exams in New York, which has been rocked by one of the largest opt-out movements in the country. Though the state has already made some changes to the tests, including shortening them and giving students unlimited time to complete the material, these parents have called for more. Last year, nearly one in five families chose to have their children sit out of the tests.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a group that helped organize the opt-out movement, said she hadn’t expected major changes to come from the pilot program. But she’s disappointed that the state isn’t looking separately to take a new approach to its annual tests.

“I am frustrated as someone who opts their children out,” Rudley said. “If we have to do an assessment, it should be a value for the student and teachers to drive instruction.”

State officials say that more changes are not feasible right now. The state is already in the process of shortening the tests from three days to two and reworking test questions to match the state’s newly revamped learning standards.

“The fact that there is no additional federal funding available to implement the pilot means the Department must focus its resources on more immediate assessment priorities,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “We will continue to look for opportunities in the future should resources allow.”

Elia said the state is interested in experimenting with new tests in science, social studies, and for graduating students. State officials gave few additional details, but said the science tests should be “hands-on” and mentioned creating a “capstone” project for graduating students.

“Those are all things that are still on the page for a different approach for assessment,” Elia said.