College preparation

Memphis high school students get taste of college life through Summer Institutes

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
High school student Dekena Ervin attends an entrepreneurship class at the University of Memphis through the Summer Institutes, launched in 2015 in partnership with GRAD Academy Memphis. The South Memphis charter school announced it would be closing this summer.

Standing in front of their class at the University of Memphis, high school students fidget nervously before pitching a business idea to their classmates: producing soap carved in the shape of ducks.

“Did you guys just come up with that?” asked business professor Jennifer Sadler, prompting a sheepish acknowledgement from the teenagers that they did.

“When I give my students work to do, it means you need to get it done outside of class,” admonished Sadler, who then quickly assured the students that some of the most successful business ideas are inspired in five minutes or less.

Such interaction is common at the GRAD Academy’s Summer Institutes, launched this summer in an effort to prepare and encourage students at the Memphis high school to graduate and continue their studies at college.

GRAD Academy Memphis is a charter school within the Achievement School District, the state’s school turnaround district for Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Eighty percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged, and only about a third scored proficient on the state algebra achievement test in 2013-14.

This week, 50 of the school’s 10th- and 11th-graders have been immersed in a college environment at the University of Memphis. Last week, a different group of GRAD Academy students attended classes at Rhodes College, also in Memphis. Each week costs roughly $30,000 to operate, and the funding comes from a private donor. The program is free to students, who need at least a 2.0 GPA to be eligible to attend. For completing a summer institute, each student receives a $150 stipend.

Participants this week arrived on campus and ate breakfast each day at the Tiger Den dining hall before attending classes taught by university faculty. Just like with college students, they are expected to attend class and complete assignments. On Friday, the students will present a project demonstrating what they learned and will participate in graduation ceremonies.

“It’s pretty miraculous that in a week’s time, they learn some introductory material, create a presentation, and share it with their friends and family on Friday,” said Stephanie Hill, dean of students at GRAD Academy Memphis.

At the University of Memphis, students chose from four “tracks,” or majors: communications, entrepreneurship, engineering and art/film. Each track has a university student who serves as “team leader” to guide the high school students on campus and assist teachers in the classroom, where the student-teacher ratio is 17:1.

University of Memphis senior and team leader Gregesha Williams said the Summer Institute help students realize that college is possible.

“They were just so excited about having the possibility to be an adult and attend school,” Williams said. “It gives them hope and encouragement and it lets them know that they already have what they need within them to be successful.”

Sixteen-year-old Dekena Ervin, who was part of the team who pitched the soap company, said participating in the program helps her to envision herself on a college campus someday, despite the early morning classes and heavy workload.

University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute on the campus of the University of Memphis.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute.

“I wanted to do this because I know my destiny in life. I want to be somebody,” said Dekena, who chose the entrepreneurship track. “I did it just to get the college experience and see how college would work out for me.”

Institute instructors treat Dekena and her classmates like college students. When Sadler critiqued her students’ business ideas, she offered suggestions on how to improve them next time.

Dekena said she appreciates the candid evaluation.

“When I express my ideas within the classroom, the professors actually give me honest feedback about what I say,” Dekena said. “Whether it’s good or bad, they give me honest feedback.”

404 not found

Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.