Ed Chief

Arne Duncan talks turnaround work in the trenches of struggling Memphis schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks Friday with Lionel Cable, principal of Douglass K-8 Optional School in Memphis and part of the Innovation Zone for Shelby County Schools.

With an audience that included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Melrose High School Principal Mark Neal described the challenges of school turnaround work in Memphis, where efforts to address the city’s high concentration of struggling schools is attracting the attention of the nation.

One of the challenges, Neal said, is understanding “there are some dynamics bigger than us.”

In Tennessee’s largest city, poverty is pervasive. In Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school district with more than 93,000 students, nearly 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. Poor literacy skills, high mobility, gangs and truancy are part of the mix too.

Neal was among educators who spoke with Duncan Friday during a roundtable discussion about how to turn the trajectory of chronically underperforming schools. Serving as the backdrop for the conversation was Douglass K-8 Optional School, a struggling school now achieving student growth under the umbrella of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a state-approved district initiative focused on quickly moving schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Visiting Memphis for the fourth time since he became the nation’s education chief, Duncan commended administrators for their dedication in the trenches of school turnaround work.

“I don’t think there’s any harder work, any more important work, than turning around schools that are historically struggling,” Duncan said.

The outgoing secretary’s return to Memphis in the last months of his tenure was fitting because the city’s changing education landscape reflects part of his legacy as the nation’s education chief. Under the Race to the Top competition announced by Duncan and President Obama in 2009, the administration’s push to improve the nation’s worst schools and close the achievement gap among their students helped to drive local, state, federal and philanthropic efforts to address the city’s woeful K-12 public education system.

The secretary also used Friday’s Memphis trip, including a visit to Southwest Tennessee Community College, as his podium to announce the launch of an experiment that will expand access to college coursework for high school students from low-income backgrounds.

For the first time, those students will be able to access federal Pell grants to take college courses through dual enrollment. Dual enrollment, in which students enroll in postsecondary coursework while also enrolled in high school, is a promising approach to improve academic outcomes for low-income students, Duncan said.

“A postsecondary education is one of the most important investments students can make in their future. Yet the cost of this investment is higher than ever, creating a barrier to access for some students, particularly from low-income families,” Duncan said in a news release. “We look forward to partnering with institutions to help students prepare to succeed in college.”

Getting students to graduate high school ready for college, career or other postsecondary training is the goal of schools in the iZone as well. But first, K-12 schools must raise their yearly achievement level and create a culture of learning that supersedes the challenges faced by students outside of school.

Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Arne Duncan talks about strategies for chess with a student learning through play at Douglass K-8 Optional School.

During his school turnaround discussion at Douglass School, principals told Duncan that building relationships with students and their families is key to building a foundation for student learning.

Rodney Rowan, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, said educators are providing “a voice to the children, [but] being a voice to the parents as well.” Many parents know what they want from the school, he said, but struggle to articulate their needs.

“You have to make them comfortable enough to be transparent with you about the things that they need,” Rowan said. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district’s 3-year-old iZone is finding success bridging the gaps among students, parents and families. Its intensive turnaround model requires additional funding for interventions such as extended school hours, rewarding effective teachers with bonuses, and giving principals autonomy to hire teachers and rewrite curriculum.

“In particular, our iZone schools have very strong school leaders,” Hopson said.

Duncan said the iZone’s steady gains in student scores demonstrate that “the progress is very real.”

“I have a pretty good sense of the challenges you face … single-parent homes and sometimes no-parent homes, kids in school when they’re hungry or can’t see the blackboard or whatever it might be. But great principals and great teachers make a huge difference in students’ lives,” he said.

The secretary said he would like to see more school districts emulate the approach that Shelby County Schools has taken with its iZone.

“There’s something pretty special happening in Memphis,” Duncan said. “You guys are ahead of many districts in challenging status quo and putting together a plan, putting together a team and putting together a mini district. I know you have a long way to go, but you’re making faster progress than many school districts and that’s a really, really big deal.”

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Douglass School is now a state reward school for student growth.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”