Future of Schools

Neighborhood councils to consider state-proposed charters for six Memphis schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Alicia Tomlinson stands with her son, Jacobi, outside of Hawkins Mill Elementary School, where Jacobi is in the first grade. Tomlinson has applied to serve on her school's neighborhood advisory council.

Alicia Tomlinson already was concerned whether her son was getting an adequate education when she learned that his was among six Memphis schools targeted for state takeover because of poor academic performance.

So Tomlinson, 41, applied to join a community panel that state officials say will help determine the future of Hawkins Mill Elementary School. The state-run Achievement School District proposes to remove Hawkins Mill from the control of Shelby County Schools and convert it to an ASD-operated charter school.

“I am a strong believer that I should make every effort to see what other options I have to make sure my son gets the best education,” said Tomlinson, whose son, Jacobi, is a first-grader at Hawkins Mill. “I wanted to see for myself what the ASD has to offer my son.”

Tomlinson is expected to learn early this week whether she has been selected to serve on one of four neighborhood advisory councils created by the ASD as part of its new process to involve parents, community leaders and other local stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The councils are a critical component in the district’s new community engagement initiative, rolled out during the summer after ASD officials acknowledged numerous missteps when taking over other Memphis schools during its first three years of operations.

“We heard loud and clear from all of our stakeholders that there are certain questions that we want the operators to be able to answer to know if they’re going to be a strong fit for those schools,” said Anjelica Hardin, director of strategic partnerships for the ASD.

ASD leaders say the need for state intervention at Hawkins Mill is clear, while leaders with Shelby County Schools have touted existing plans to help the school improve without state intervention.

Last year, only 16 percent of Hawkins Mill students were proficient or advanced in reading language arts, almost 37 percent in math, and nearly 28 percent in science. The school is on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, allowing the ASD to intervene under state law.

In previous years, the state’s school turnaround district announced which schools would be taken over and quickly introduced their new charter operators. For the most part, the community was approached after the decision already had been made. Under the ASD’s new process, parents and community members serving on the councils interact with interested charter operators throughout the fall and review operator applications, scheduled for submission by Oct. 23.

“We want people to know that this is really a community decision that is a definite priority area for the leadership team,” Hardin said, “and that folks really know this is a big opportunity to be engaged, because literally the decision is in your hands.”

Critics have questioned how much power the councils actually have, however. ASD leaders will make the final decision in early December, after council members submit individual assessments of charter applicants. If the process does not produce a match between a school and an operator, the school will remain with Shelby County Schools, according to ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron.

ASD-led training for selected council members is scheduled to begin next week.

The ASD aims to have 10 members on each of its four councils, half of them parents. Of the 190 applications received, 85 came from parents, Aaron said. Parents, in particular, had been encouraged to apply at numerous community meetings held at the schools over the last two months by leaders both with the ASD and Shelby County Schools.

Some stakeholders have questioned whether the resulting pool of applicants was sufficient to adequately represent school communities.

Patricia Merriweather, principal of Sheffield Elementary, another school targeted for takeover, said Sheffield includes a large percentage of Hispanic students and English language learners. “I’m OK with the process as long as it is fair,” Merriweather said. “They promised me there would be people on the panel who have been in Sheffield.”

Tomlinson is one of three parents who applied to serve on a council for Hawkins Mill.

“I was a bit taken aback that there wasn’t more parents,” Tomlinson said about the subsequent interview process. “Parental participation is the weakest link that should be the strongest presence.”

Going forward, Tomlinson said she has no preference on whether Hawkins Mill remains with the Memphis-based district or joins the state-run district, as long as her son gets the best education possible.

“I’m just a mom,” she said, “(but) I appreciate the way they’re involving us.”


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”