Takeover pause

Citing TNReady transition, Tennessee’s school turnaround district to halt takeovers for one year

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

The Achievement School District will not seek to take over more low-performing schools in the 2017-18 school year because of the state’s transition to its new K-12 assessment this year, district leaders said Friday.

The decision is consistent with allowances being shown by the State Department of Education over student grades and teacher evaluations due to the failed rollout of TNReady, according to the announcement by Tennessee’s school turnaround district.

“Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement released through the ASD. “We remain committed to improving all schools as well as the work being done by the ASD …”

Under the new timetable, the next time the ASD will authorize new school charter operators will be the spring of 2017 for potential charter conversions in 2018-19. However, decisions on new school starts for previously authorized operators, grade expansion and non-academic school actions will continue and be based on operator and school performance.

“This is not a moratorium, it is a hold harmless year based on a new assessment,” the statement says.

Several state lawmakers from Memphis and school boards in both Memphis and Nashville have called for a one-year moratorium on ASD growth. The ASD operates 27 turnaround schools in Memphis and two in Nashville and will add four more in Memphis next school year.

A major issue behind calls for a moratorium was the ASD’s lackluster performance thus far in turning around struggling schools, but ASD leaders emphasized that their decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady. That rollout has been bumpy, with network outages that prompted the state to scrap its new online assessment, and numerous delays in delivering paper-based tests to local districts.

The district also hinted toward its next destination in turning around low-performing schools: Chattanooga. Five schools were in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in 2014.

“In the meantime, the department and the ASD will work closely with Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and other districts with Priority schools, including Hamilton County, to continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017,” the statement says.

Local school officials in Memphis were not immediately available to comment, but leaders in Nashville welcomed the news.

“It’s a positive first step toward a series of course corrections that need to happen with the Achievement School District. I’m glad the state is listening,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville board member who sponsored the resolution for an ASD moratorium, approved just this week by Nashville’s school board.

Chris Henson, interim director for Nashville’s district, added that “given that this is a new test, it is appropriate to give districts the leeway to decide how to use the results for their own accountability purposes. Knowing that the TDOE will also do the same as it applies to the Achievement School District is encouraging.”

State lawmakers and education advocates in Memphis also weighed in.

“The fact that the ASD/DOE is listening and holding their 17-18 school year as a ‘hold harmless’ year is a positive step in the right direction,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, another frequent ASD critic.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, an advocacy group that has supported the ASD’s efforts and assisted in parent engagement at Memphis schools considered for takeover, praised the ASD’s decision.

“Students need adequate time to prepare for and adjust to the new TNReady assessment, and this decision will allow for that,” said Mendell Grinter, the alliance’s state director.

"Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

The ASD launched in 2011 and opened its first schools in 2012. It primary turnaround model is to take control of struggling schools and assign them to high-quality charter networks with the goal of turning them around within five years. Superintendent Malika Anderson has acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and likely will not be met. The recently released state list of schools in danger of appearing on the 2017 priority list — schools that are academically in the bottom 5 percent — shows that all but one of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort are still in the bottom 5 percent.

The district took a major hit last December when researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study suggesting that Memphis’ low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a turnaround initiative operated by the local district.

Pinkston said the state should adopt the model used by the iZone, whose test scores have outpaced the ASD cumulatively. “What Shelby County is doing works,” he said.

IZone schools remain within the local district but, like charters, have the autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day. Its leaders have said that constant collaboration is another key to its success thus far.

The ASD’s statement said the district will focus for now on its existing schools: “While in 2017-18 the ASD will not convert additional schools, we will continue to maintain the urgency, momentum, and attention on priority schools that has been so critical to the accelerated student growth we have seen,” the statement said. “… Our students cannot afford for us to slow down.”

 

Corrections & Clarifications: April 15, 2016: A previous version did not include that the ASD may choose to initiate new school starts for previously approved charter operators and grade expansion. That has been added. The story also clarifies that the ASD’s decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady, not problems associated with the assessment’s rollout.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”