Future of Schools

Charter school’s possible closure raises questions about oversight

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Tommie Henderson, executive director of the New Consortium of Law and Business, listens as district school board members discuss the future of the school.

Facing the prospect of closing a struggling charter school just days before the new school year is set to begin, Shelby County school board members are asking themselves whether their strategies to hold charter schools accountable do enough to safeguard students.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told board members on Tuesday that he is recommending they vote to shutter New Consortium of Law and Business, which has been investigated by district officials for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for the month of May and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan.

That vote would come next week, on the same day that New Consortium is set to open registration for the school year. If board members sign off on Hopson’s proposal, the school’s 160 students would need to find a different school just weeks before the year starts.

“Our biggest concern is that the snafus will continue and we’ll have to shut it down in middle of the school year,” Hopson said. “But we’re aware that there are 160 families out there and we don’t want them scurrying around trying to find a school right before the year starts.”

Hopson walked the board members through a presentation that detailed the charter school’s infractions and said that the district sent letters to New Consortium parents last week to make them aware that the school might be shut down.

Board members said they were concerned that the notice came too late for students, parents, and teachers to make alternate plans for the year. They also asked why the district did not catch the infractions earlier. Teachers at the charter school first flagged the district of the violations.

“Based on what we’re presented, it makes all sense to revoke the charter,” said board member Chris Caldwell. “My biggest concern is that we communicate with parents immediately.”

Board Vice-Chairman Kevin Woods suggested that there be an audit system for charter schools in place so that the district can catch violations in the future.

Tommie Henderson, the charter school’s executive director, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that he wished he would have had the opportunity to speak to the board to answer their concerns, though he plans to speak at next week’s meeting. The financial issues resulted from mistakes that won’t be repeated, he said.

“During their investigation, we were never contacted, never asked questions,” said Henderson, who also started the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering in 2003, a charter school that has had its own ups and downs in recent years. “The issues they are speaking of arose from a temporary cash flow issue, which has been resolved. I want the board to know that we are financially capable and performing academically in strong ways.”

Only a quarter of the school’s students scored proficient on Tennessee’s reading and math tests in 2014, and the state’s formula for measuring student learning found that New Consortium students as a whole improved less than they should have.

Unusually, the board has not been asked to consider the school’s academic performance when deciding whether to revoke its charter.

But Henri Jones, who has a grandson at New Consortium of Law and Business, cited conditions inside the school when she told the board that would like the school to be shut down — even though she dreads the turmoil of trying to quickly find the 17-year-old a new school quickly.

“There’s been a lot of teacher turnover,” said Jones, whose grandson has been a student at the charter school for two years. “I’m starting to look at other charter schools because I don’t see this lasting.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.