Future of Schools

Parents hear opposing perspectives on proposed Memphis charter conversions

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Parents and community members listen to discussion Tuesday evening about the future of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary schools in Memphis.

Felicia Johnson came to a community meeting Tuesday evening to learn about the future of the middle school attended by her two sons. Raleigh Egypt Middle is one of six struggling Memphis schools that could be converted into charters in 2016 under a proposal unveiled last week by the state’s Achievement School District.

But like most parents in attendance, she’d rather the school stay under the control of Shelby County Schools, without state intervention, even though Raleigh Egypt is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools academically.

“The principal that’s there now at Raleigh Egypt Middle, he’s only been there a year,” Johnson said. “And in the year he’s been there, he’s made progress.”

Tuesday’s gathering was the first of four community meetings planned during the next week to introduce parents to the ASD’s proposal, seek community input and answer questions about potential conversions. About 200 people attended the forum hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children.

The hour-long discussion, preceded by a dinner of pizza and soft drinks provided by BAEO, oscillated between a carefully orchestrated presentation by ASD officials and passionate outbursts by Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love. Love questioned the wisdom of targeting Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary — two schools that she says are improving without state intervention.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions during the meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told the crowd that no decision will be made about the schools until December after receiving community input on what’s best for the schools and the students.

“All tonight is about is figuring out what is the best option,” he said. “That’s what the goal is over the next several weeks and months. If that best option is continuing what’s happening, then good. If a school can get better just like it is, then we’re open to that. All we’re trying to do is make the best decision.”

Love argued that the two schools would be better served by the local district because both of their principals are implementing turnaround plans.

“I believe in the teachers, I believe in the principals, I believe in the parents. And I am in full support of Shelby County Schools keeping control of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary School,” Love said, prompting a standing ovation from most of the crowd.

State BAEO director Mendell Grinter, who served as moderator, told parents that the relationship between the ASD and Shelby County Schools is not a hostile one.

“Our conversation shouldn’t get into Shelby County Public Schools versus the Achievement School District,” Grinter said. “They’re not enemies; oftentimes they’ve worked together. They’re going to have to work together in this process if we’re going to be successful in making sure our kids are getting a quality education.”

Both Grinter and Barbic emphasized the importance of community involvement in determining the best pathway to achieve student improvement. Everyone in attendance received an application to participate in the ASD’s new neighborhood advisory councils, which will have input on which charter operators potentially could be matched with each school. The deadline to apply for the councils is Sept. 21.

Attendees also received information sheets about the ASD, as well as a glossary defining terms such as “charter operator” and “TVAAS.”

The community meetings are part of the ASD’s new community engagement process designed to give parents and other stakeholders more input in important decisions regarding the future of their schools. In previous years, the district hosted community meetings to announce that the schools were being taken from local district control for state-authorized charter conversion, prompting angry outbursts and protests from teachers and parents. This year’s meetings are to discuss the possibility.

“Our job is to not tell you what’s going to happen,” said Barbic, who was also applauded occasionally by the crowd. “Our only goal tonight is for everyone to understand what the process is moving forward.”

Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.

Previous community meetings were held at schools, while this year’s gatherings are in neighborhood churches.

Audience members were given notecards to write down questions and concerns, and Grinter read them aloud. Some wanted to know how the state’s TVAAS model for measuring growth works. Others asked what would happen to their students and teachers if the school is removed from Shelby County Schools and placed under the state’s oversight.

Barbic answered most questions, saying any student at a school chosen for conversion has the option to stay there or transfer to another school. All teachers can re-apply to their school, but the new charter operator has full autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing.

The meeting drew different opinions from people in attendance.

“The answers to the questions are still not clear, but I think what they did tonight was give me an open eye to what’s really going on,” said Johnnie Hatten, a Frayser community member who has been active in the Memphis Lift parent advocacy group. “Nobody disagreed that the scores were not right. The schools are failing our kids.”

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson was more skeptical. “It’s more of a tactic than it is necessarily a meeting for families,” said the Memphis Democrat. “It’s a meeting so that they can say there was a meeting.”

Here are the other schools named for possible conversion and the schedule of community meetings planned to discuss them:

Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools — Thursday, Sept. 17, 6-8 p.m., The Place of Outpouring at Olivet Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church, 4450 Knight Arnold Road

Hillcrest High School — Saturday, Sept. 19, 12-2 p.m., Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, 3890 Millbranch Road

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School — Tuesday, Sept. 22, 6-8 p.m., Mount Austin Missionary Baptist Church, 1178 Breedlove St.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.