Super School project

Memphis group advances in Laurene Jobs’ contest to reinvent America’s high schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Crosstown High School would be located on the fourth and fifth floors of the redeveloped Crosstown Concourse building, joining other tenants in Memphis from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

Supporters of Crosstown High School are vying to use the proposed selective school in midtown Memphis as the canvas to remake America’s high school in a national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The board of directors for the Memphis educational endeavor announced Monday that its application is one of 348 to advance to the next round of of the XQ Super School Challenge, which Jobs announced last September, inviting teams to reimagine how high schools can better prepare students for college, workplace and life.

The competition received nearly 700 applications from 45 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico — twice as many as the philanthropic effort expected. Five winners will be announced this August and will receive $10 million each — $2 million annually for five years — to develop new educational approaches.

“Our XQ application was the result of months of hard work by a large and diverse group of volunteers, including young people, parents, educators and many other community members who all have a stake in the future of our city’s public education,” said Michelle McKissack, a member of the proposed school’s board of directors.

Backers want Crosstown High School to be a selective college prep program operated as a contract school in a partnership between Shelby County Schools and Christian Brothers University, which is now part of a new nonprofit group called Crosstown High School Inc. The 500-student school would serve students who perform on or above grade level on state tests. It would open in fall 2017 and operate under an independent governing board.

Shelby County’s school board got its first look in January at the proposed partnership supported by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. Members generally were open to the proposal but expressed concern about the school achieving diversity in a district where at least 65 percent of students come from poor families. The current proposal calls for a student population of at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Board member Chris Caldwell, who represents the district that would be home to the new school, said the partnership proposal is still under discussion and that he supports efforts such as the XQ campaign that may yield new resources. “I wish them luck,” he said Monday. “Any school that is going to operate within Shelby County Schools that can get these kinds of resources is a great accomplishment.”

Crosstown High would be located in Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears warehouse building undergoing a massive renovation with tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors. It would leverage partnerships and resources available through tenants including Church Health Center, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis Teacher Residency, Crosstown Arts and others.

The proposed school would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Hopson has said the district is seeking to increase options for high-quality schools in order to retain or attract students to Shelby County Schools who might otherwise go to a private school.

“This incredibly unique opportunity includes the space of the school itself,” McKissack said of the XQ effort. “Instead of trying to fit such an innovative high school into an existing school building, Crosstown Concourse offers us a blank slate, an open space with no walls to design a physical learning environment that is one-of-a-kind and presents us with limitless possibilities for collaboration, skills development, and learning.”

Schools chosen to advance to the next round of the contest represent 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and must submit their next applications by May 23.

“This next part of the process is really about putting the flesh on the bones and demonstrating how the school would be operational,” said Ginger Spickler, a Memphis parent who created the Memphis School Guide and is a contributor to the application process.

Powell Jobs created the XQ Institute in an effort to bring Silicon Valley thinking to education to fix the biggest problems facing the nation’s high schools. The institute kicked off its work with the national contest.

Common themes that emerged from the first round of applications include a desire to make high schools the center of the community again; a desire to build school designs around involvement of the students themselves; and learning styles that focus on mastery of topic, project collaboration, blended subjects and applications in higher ways.

McKissack said the contest has provided an opportunity to galvanize education stakeholders in Memphis.

“Whether or not we ultimately make it all the way through the XQ Super School Challenge, we have definitely come to better understand the unique opportunity a Crosstown High School affords us,” she said.

Disclosure: Chalkbeat receives support from the Emerson Collective, which launched XQ.

Correction: April 11, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the competition had received nearly 700 applications from 49 states. The correct number is 45 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.