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.”

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

Eyes on

Happening at a campus near you: Here’s what the security review of every public school in Tennessee looks like

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sumner County Schools safety coordinator Katie Brown and Gallatin police Lt. Billy Vahldiek examine the window pane in a school hallway to make sure the glass is shatter-resistant. The review team is one of more than a hundred across the state who are conducting security assessments this summer of every Tennessee public school.

Balancing a clipboard in one hand and a coffee tumbler in the other, Katie Brown bends down to inspect a window pane in the hallway of a 10-year-old Tennessee school building.

The glass is shatter-resistant. Check.

Down the hall, Lt. Billy Vahldiek opens an outside exit door and then watches as it latches and locks properly. Check.

Earlier that morning, both Brown and Vahldiek circled the elementary school’s outside perimeter to make sure lighting is adequate, signage is clear, and landscaping doesn’t create blind spots where an intruder could hide.

The pair — one a school safety coordinator, the other a police officer — are teaming up on this day in Sumner County, north of Nashville, to walk through several schools and review security protocols with their principals as part of a statewide review.

“A lot of these schools were built post-Columbine, and some of them are post-Sandy Hook, but none of them are post-Parkland,” said Vahldiek, a Gallatin police officer, chronologically listing three of the nation’s most horrific school shootings.

Aging school facilities and heightened safety concerns are the prime drivers behind Tennessee’s sweeping summertime inspection of all 1,800 of its public school campuses. Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the unprecedented assessment in March following an intruder’s fatal shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The state’s goal is to identify vulnerabilities that could put Tennessee students and staff at similar risk — and to inform districts how they should use $35 million in safety grants in the months ahead.

Tennessee is among states that responded to Parkland by stepping up their upcoming budgets for thwarting potential attackers. This spring, Haslam and the Legislature doubled to $10 million the amount of recurring annual safety grants — and also provided a one-time investment of $25 million. A share of the money will become available to all 147 districts beginning in July based on Tennessee’s school funding formula — but only after the school systems provide the state with safety inventories of all of their schools.

"It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this."Mike Hermann, Tennessee Department of Education

“It’s a massive undertaking. It’s the first time we’ve ever looked at every school in Tennessee like this,” said Mike Hermann, who is helping to coordinate the review in behalf of the state Education Department.

“Our work is definitely cut out for us this summer,” added Commissioner David Purkey, whose Safety and Homeland Security department is spearheading the initiative. “But there’s a sense of urgency. We want to get it all done by the start of the school year, at least that’s our goal.”

As of this week, about a third of the inspection reports had been submitted — on pace with the state’s timetable. In mid-July, Tennessee will begin accepting applications for the extra spending money.

Most of the one-time grants are expected to further harden school campuses with improvements like upgraded security cameras, fixing or replacing broken locks or outdated doors, and beefing up front entrances. The smaller annual funding could be tapped to hire law enforcement officers to police some campuses, though the money is a drop in the bucket toward providing coverage for every school. There’s also opportunity to invest in mental health services if that’s identified as a local priority.


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The money will only go so far. Still, officials believe the safety review lays the groundwork for next steps.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for schools to make an honest appraisal of where they are with security,” Hermann said. “And we’re going to have a much clearer picture of where we are statewide so that future action by the next governor and General Assembly can be based on a higher level of information.”

The reviews are conducted by local teams who participated in regional trainings provided by the state Safety and Homeland Security Department. Comprised of school personnel and local law enforcement, each two-person team follows an 89-point checklist of risks and precautions based on national standards developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
On-site security reviews are being conducted in schools statewide this summer under an order from Gov. Bill Haslam.

Depending on the building’s age and size, each review usually take two to three hours as inspection teams meet with the principal and inspect the physical facility. Can a school control access to the building? Do all staff wear photo identification badges on campus? Do teachers keep their classroom doors locked?

“The days of propping open doors on a pretty day are gone,” said Brown as she and Vahldiek went through the checklist during one inspection.

The teams also document the availability of personnel for security and for student support services such as school psychologists, as well as relationships with local law enforcement and healthcare providers. Finally, they submit their reports to the state and include copies of each school’s emergency plans and its drill logs from the previous year.

Unfortunately, summertime does not lend itself to seeing a school on a typical school day. For now, the buildings are mostly empty of students and staff as classrooms are painted, floors are waxed, and maintenance performed. But Brown views school break as a good time to look at the nitty-gritty details and to have thoughtful, unrushed conversations with school leaders that should trickle down to faculty and staff.

“We absolutely are taking this seriously,” said Brown, who is coordinating 46 reviews for Sumner County Schools.

“Most things on the checklist are not requirements or codes; they’re recommendations and best practices,” she said. “But this raises our awareness. It reinforces the good things we’re already doing. And it will inform how we use the safety grants.”

Editor’s note: This story does not name the school being inspected as a condition of Chalkbeat’s reporter shadowing the review team.