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.”


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”