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.

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.