Tardy start

Memphis educators: First days of school matter

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Alissiya, 6, and Tynesha, 13, wait with their mother to be registered for the first day of school.

Clutching immunization records in one arm and her infant son in the other, Stephanie Smith shrugged when asked why she was registering her two daughters for school on Tuesday at Riverview, a K-8 school in Memphis.

It was 9:30 a.m., two hours after the day’s first school bell rang and a full six days since the school year began. Tynesha, 13, and Alissiya, 6, waited alongside their mother to complete the registration process.

Teachers at Riverview School aren’t shrugging. This year, the staff must aggressively raise test scores that have languished among the worst in the state for decades. They are using the first days of school to explain rules and expectations and roll out an aggressive curriculum. For every three dozen or so children who wait past Labor Day to show up to class, the school loses a staff member. And for every day a child misses school, that’s eight fewer hours a teacher has with the student.

“If they miss the first day, they’ve already missed valuable instruction time,” said Riverview principal LaTasha Harris.

By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students across Shelby County were still not registered, a chronic problem of late registration that has stumped Memphis educators for decades.

To address to issue, Riverview administrators dispatched staff members to call parents’ phones and knock on relatives’ doors before the first school bell even sounded.

Likewise, the district made an unprecedented push to get kids registered early. It extended the registration period, placed the process online, and organized special events to help families without computers or Internet service — all in an effort to widen access.

Next month, the district will celebrate National Attendance Month in grand fashion, complete with appearances by NBA players from the Memphis Grizzlies, billboards and public service announcements.

“I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day,” said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline. “They think that if their students miss the first couple of days, they’re really not missing that much. What we plan to do is continue getting the message out to the community that school starts on the first day, and it’s critical for them to be there. When your child misses the first day, … they’re like the new kid on the block.”

Tracking students

District administrators were not able to provide attendance numbers from this time last year, despite repeated requests by Chalkbeat. The numbers would show whether the shift to an online registration process has helped.

Hargrave said this week district staff are working to track thousands of missing students who may have begun attending several new charter schools or ventured to the outskirts of the county where six municipal districts have begun their second year of operations. With each student who leaves or moves, the Memphis-based district loses accompanying education funds.

“We don’t have clean numbers to tell us how many students have gone somewhere else,” Hargrave said.

Administrators are working diligently to check surrounding districts’ enrollment records to see if missing students are registered elsewhere or if, as many teachers think, the students are still on summer vacation.

School leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school.

In the last few decades, service-industry jobs have become more temporary, lasting just a handful of months and prompting parents to move to look for work. Instead of owning homes as many families did decades ago, the vast majority of Memphians, many with bad credit, rent or use housing vouchers, signing leases that last six months to a year.

The district has closed several dozen under-enrolled schools in the last five years in an attempt to right-size the district, and several new charter schools have opened in their place, some serving different grades and starting at different times of the school year.

By August, many parents simply don’t know what school their family is zoned for.

There are other reasons, too. In order to register, parents have to show two forms of identification and proof of residency. But many Memphians either don’t have two forms of identification or have recently had their drivers’ license suspended. Many live with family or friends, so proving residency requires a notary public.

Others want to miss the large crowds and long lines associated with the first day of school.

Reaching out

At Riverview, the staff started the registration process early in the wake of the recent closure of crosstown rival South Side Middle School. Those students are now zoned for Riverview, a move that sparked loud protests and even a lawsuit from one group of South Side parents and teachers. Riverview, they argued, is located in a gang-ridden neighborhood also besieged by prostitution and shooting.

As school principal, Harris knew it would be challenging to convince parents otherwise and launched a campaign to absorb South Side students and convince their families not to transfer them to charter schools.

During the summer, the staff broke up into teams of five and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods, urging parents in person to register their child. They held a series of open houses and gave out free uniforms, hotdogs and haircuts.

“Many say they don’t have uniforms or school supplies,” Harris said. “We want to get rid of every excuse possible.”

For parents without the necessary proofs of residence or immunization shots, administrators sent the students to class anyway and sent a letter home to parents warning about suspension if they didn’t bring in the necessary forms by the next week.

By Tuesday, the school had 516 students registered, just one shy of its projected number. And in this era of accountability, where standardized tests matter more than ever, teachers aren’t wasting time.

"I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day."Angela Hargrave, director of attendance and discipline

Having covered classroom rules including how to walk in the hallway — hands by your side and no talking — third-grade math and science teacher Jerreca Saulsberry was distributing notebooks on Tuesday for holding worksheets and tests. Soon, she’ll be administering assessments to determine academic levels and begin teaching to the state’s standards.

“Those first few days, we’re setting the culture of the school,” Saulsberry said. “If you’re not here, you’re missing out.”

Last year, Saulsberry had just five out of her 20 students show up on the first day of school, a jarring experience. She since has created a system to accommodate the steady stream of new students who show up in her class. She’s designated two “student ambassadors” who orient new students on classroom rules, and she created a folder of important forms and worksheets to send home with them.

When 15 students were in her classroom on the first day of school this year, the improved showing elicited cheers in the faculty lounge.

As for Tynesha and Alissiya, both said they were excited about their first day of class, albeit more than a week late. And their mom was happy too about the registration process.

“It was much easier than I thought it’d be,” she said.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.