Future of Schools

As Teach For America marks 10 years in Memphis, contract with Shelby County Schools faces scrutiny under tight budget

PHOTO: Laura Kebede
Emily Abeles, a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School in Memphis, teaches one of her small groups. Abeles is an alumna of the city's first Teach For America cohort.

Emily Abeles says she probably wouldn’t have gotten into teaching had she not signed up with Teach For America as part of the organization’s first cohort in Memphis in 2006.

A Knoxville native, she’s stayed in Memphis ever since and works today as a reading intervention specialist at Westside Achievement Middle School, operated by the state-run Achievement School District in the Frayser community.

Marking its 10th year in Memphis, Teach For America is one of a handful of alternative teacher training programs that help feed the pipeline of educators into schools operated by Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District and charter schools authorized by the local district.

The nonprofit organization, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, has 293 recruits working in Memphis this school year, compared with 48 its first year. And the training has evolved to meet the needs of the city’s challenging teaching environment.

“We focused on mostly academic goals at first,” Abeles said of the first cohort’s efforts. “Now I’m seeing first years with much larger and more ambitious visions for their students. They’re thinking more holistically with their students.”

The number of Memphis recruits is down from the organization’s peak of 340 in 2014, a decrease that leaders attribute to the economy’s recovery and college students finding more lucrative job offers upon graduation.

The recruiting organization expects about 260 new teachers next school year, about half of whom will teach in Shelby County Schools if the school board votes Tuesday night to approve a contract to pay the organization up to $650,000, or $5,000 for each teacher placed.

Since 2009, the cost was covered by the $90 million grant awarded to the local Memphis district from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher effectiveness initiatives. This year, as the grant money dries up and the district faces an estimated shortfall of more than $70 million, its funding is less certain.

With the Gates money, “it was easy because that money was earmarked” for teacher effectiveness efforts, said school board Chairwoman Teresa Jones, adding that TFA recruits provide a “great value” and fill hard-to-staff positions. But facing a budget deficit, “we’re approving something without knowing what we’ll have to give up to have it,” she said.

Board member Stephanie Love notes that the school district is struggling to care for its own hires and create a balanced budget. “We have a (staff) shortage, that’s true,” Love said. “I just really think we should lift our morale in house and we may not have to worry about contracting with an organization to bring in more teachers as we are now.”

Teach For America has long faced criticism for fast-tracking young idealists into the classroom, giving them a summer of intensive preparation rather than the years of coursework that teachers who graduate from education schools typically take.

But traditional teacher colleges have not supplied the number of educators that districts like Shelby County Schools need, while alternative programs have become more mainstream nationally to feed districts that serve high-need students.

In Memphis, TFA’s track record includes a number of high-profile alumni.

Of the original 48-member cohort, 10 TFA recruits still work in the city, including Tim Ware, executive director of ASD-operated Achievement Schools, and Athena Turner, who now oversees TFA in Memphis. In addition, Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools and a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet, was the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis.

“There’s an undying desire to make Memphis the absolute best place to live in the world,” Ware said of why he stayed. “There’s a lot of energy that I love to be a part of.”

Ware was one of only three black teachers in the inaugural cohort and the only one who was not straight out of college. Since then, the organization has sought to attract recruits that are more diverse in ethnicity and background, as well as provide more training on understanding the culture of its students.

Ware cites the professional development he received through TFA for putting him on the fast track to a leadership role. “The non-stop training and development TFA provided me, it really sharpened my sword and really quickened my pace more than I’ve seen in other contexts,” he said.

Turner says the percentage of recruits continuing to teach in Memphis after their two-year commitment has steadily grown. About 64 percent of teachers from the 2013 cohort stayed on for this year, she said.

 

Across Tennessee, about 9 percent of teachers trained in Tennessee last year came from alternative programs similar to TFA.

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.