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.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”