opportunity cost

Strong iZone scores viewed as chance to grow Shelby County’s turnaround initiative

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Rodney Rowan works with reading teachers on instructional strategies they will use during the upcoming school year at Cherokee Elementary School, an iZone school in Memphis that posted big gains in its 2015 student test scores.

Test score trends at the state-run Achievement School District grabbed headlines last week, but even larger gains were logged by several other low-performing Memphis schools in the process of being overhauled.

Most schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a group of 14 schools that also started in the bottom 5 percent statewide, saw their students’ math scores rise since last year. The initiative even had a number of schools buck the statewide trend and raise the proportion of students meeting the state’s standards in reading.

Now, Shelby County leaders are using the scores to renew calls for increased funding for the iZone, which has run down its infusion of federal funds and now is cobbling together scarce dollars. They also are raising questions about why the state is letting its own district take over Shelby County schools when a local improvement strategy appears to be paying off.

“The state should invest wisely, and part of the equation should be what programs are working,” board member Chris Caldwell said last week at a meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education. “Clearly the iZone is.”

*School joined the iZone in 2012-13, **School joined the iZone in 2013-14,***School joined the iZone in 2014-15
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.

When federal officials turned up the pressure on states to raise performance at their lowest-scoring schools, Tennessee took a multi-pronged approach. It established the ASD to remove some schools from their districts, either to run on its own or to hand over to nonprofit charter operators. It also allocated a pot of federal funds — School Improvement Grants created through the 2009 stimulus — to districts that agreed to overhaul “persistently low-achieving” schools in specific ways.

To clear the way for districts to qualify for the funds, legislators signed off on allowing districts to free their weakest schools from many mandates while holding on to their students — and the associated state funding.

The funding and flexibility together led to Shelby County’s Innovation Zone. The zone’s 16 schools received autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day — changes that are common in privately run charter schools but rarer in traditional public schools. In exchange, making the right changes would bring a temporary but sorely needed influx of new dollars.

“We’ve got a very, very aggressive but simple formula that our team executes to a tee,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in an interview earlier this month.

Cherokee Elementary School, which has emerged as a sort of trophy for the district, ran with the new autonomy, even though it was one of the only iZone schools not to receive the federal funds. There, 65 percent of students met the state’s standards in math — four times as many students as in 2013, after one year in the district —  and twice as many students met the state’s reading standards. That growth came at a time when test scores statewide rose by a much smaller margin, and just 40 percent of students in elementary and middle school across Shelby County met the state’s math standards.

District and school officials attributed the outsized gains to an unrelenting focus on ensuring that students have the skills they need to succeed on the state tests, known collectively as TCAP.

Principal Rodney Rowan personally rewrote the curriculum after studying the state’s tests, an undertaking that Heidi Ramirez, Shelby County’s chief academic officer, said she found impressive.

The school also rallied students around success on the tests and introduced data analysis to teachers’ practice, asking them to scrutinize assignments over the course of the year to determine the skills not yet mastered by students.

Then, “instead of teaching what they already know, I’m able to boost them up,” Rowan said.

Other iZone schools’ test score gains were less dramatic but still far outpaced state and local trends. After a change in leadership, 29 percent of students at Treadwell Elementary School met state literacy standards, up from 18 percent last year. And almost half of the students at Douglass School, which serves students from kindergarten through 8th grade, met science standards, up from just 30 percent the year before.

Not every iZone school saw gains on every test. At Sherwood Middle, for example, science scores dropped from 49 percent to 26 percent.

*School joined the iZone in 2012-13, **School joined the iZone in 2013-14,***School joined the iZone in 2014-15
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. English I scores from 2011-14 were not available for Trezevant High, Melrose High or Hamilton High so they were not included in this chart. The 2013-14 English I scores for Trezvant, Melrose and Hamilton were 23, 33.1 and 26.2 respectively.

Still, the district is so confident in the iZone’s trajectory that it is expanding it by two more schools and 1,400 students this fall, even though money is tight to add new programs and pay staff for additional hours. It also is allocating $7 million of its own scarce funds, partly drawing from the district’s $41 million settlement with the city earlier this year over a funding dispute. In addition, the state is providing almost $5 million to support turnaround efforts at five of the district’s iZone schools.

However, any future expansion is unclear, since the state is spending down its federal funds and the district is strapped for cash. The uncertainty appears poised to exacerbate budget tension between the ASD, which has been successful in attracting philanthropic support from across Tennessee and beyond, and Shelby County Schools, which has ceded enrollment and associated funding to the state-run initiative.

Speaking recently about the ASD, Hopson said he thought it had pushed the district’s leaders to improve their schools more quickly than they might have otherwise. But he also said he thinks the iZone’s approach is more appropriate for Memphis.

“I also think there’s a lot of value in having a lot of homegrown leaders,” Hopson said, alluding to the fact that many of the people hired to run ASD schools had worked elsewhere before coming to Memphis. “It takes charter schools awhile to get adjusted to the culture. Most of our leaders have strong ties here. They’re able to jump in and assess the needs, get buy-in, and get results.”

State education officials touted the state-run ASD’s scores in their press release last week. But Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told reporters that she is “proud of the iZone work that is happening in the state.”

She indicated, though, that the state considers its long-term strategy for improving low-performing schools an open question.

“It’s important that we not only continue to look at the work that they’re doing and how it is impacting results but also to work together in terms of learning, from the state perspective, what the iZone is doing well, what the ASD is doing well, and … other models across the state of turning around priority schools that might not [fall into] either of those two structures,” she said.

A future without additional funding for the iZone won’t be good for the thousands of students who attend low-performing schools in Memphis, Hopson said.

“Because these schools have been underinvested in for such a long time, we owe it to the community to do more,” Hopson said. “When you have something that’s working and working in a meaningful way, we have to continue to fund it.”

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”