Pilot program

Building on Innovation Zone successes, Shelby County Schools to launch separate ‘Empowerment Zone’

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
At some Memphis high schools, assemblies are held to celebrate academic all-stars and the scholarship money they've been awarded.

The prized school turnaround initiative of Shelby County Schools is getting a little sister.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced Tuesday that the district will launch a pilot “Empowerment Zone” next school year with five struggling schools that feed into Whitehaven High School in Memphis. All five schools rank academically in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools, putting them at risk of state intervention if they make next year’s state priority list of the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

Hopson described the pilot program as a “proactive strategy,” designed not only to improve the feeder schools but to help fend off state intervention in those schools. It would feature some of the same practices that the district’s 4-year-old Innovation Zone is known for, including more leadership autonomy related to teacher pay and education programming.

The five schools moving to the Empowerment Zone are:

  • Havenview Middle School
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle School
  • Holmes Road Elementary School
  • Manor Lake Elementary School
  • Robert R. Church Elementary School

A. Maceo Walker Middle and Holmes Road Elementary both appeared on the state’s 2014 list of priority schools.

The initiative will be led by Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School, which recently honored 51 seniors receiving more than $1 million each in scholarships.

“The Empowerment Zone is about concentrating efforts and talent into one system. It’s about leveraging talent, such as the abilities Dr. Hunter has shown at Whitehaven,” said Heidi Ramirez, the district’s chief academic officer.

Hunter said many students arrive at Whitehaven unprepared for high school after attending low-performing schools surrounded by impoverished neighborhoods. “We know those principals have done the very best they can do,” he said.

Schools in the Empowerment Zone will collaborate on academic strategies, particularly on the core subjects of math, language arts and science.

"The Empowerment Zone is about concentrating efforts and talent into one system. It's about leveraging talent ..."Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer

IZone leaders say collaboration has been a key factor in the iZone’s success, as teachers and administrators at its 18 schools communicate daily about best practices in their turnaround work. Launched in 2012, the iZone has produced statistically significant, positive impacts on student achievement across all subjects, according to researchers.

However, the iZone initiative is expensive to operate, particularly the cost of extending the school day by an extra hour. The Empowerment Zone plan would not extend the school day. However, on the same night that district administrators grappled to address a projected $86 million projected budget deficit for next year, they were not able to say how much the new initiative would cost.

external control

State Board of Education pushes Adams 14 to give up authority over its schools

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

With the Adams 14 district failing to meet state academic expectations for eight years, Colorado education officials plan to send in an outside manager — but they don’t trust the district to agreeably cede its authority.

So before it steps in, the board late Wednesday, moved to specify what powers it can force the district to give up.

State Board of Education members asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

The State Board met Wednesday to consider ordering drastic actions for the lowest performing school district in the state, in order to improve education of the approximately 7,500 Adams 14 students. The state board was expected to vote Thursday, but may now delay its final order until getting legal advice on what it can request from the district.

State board member Joyce Rankin said the board must provide a clear and explicit explanation of its expectations, “because I thought we had this a year ago and apparently we did not.”

Leaders of Adams 14, based in Commerce City, presented their proposal to cede some of their authority, by hiring two outside groups — one to manage the district and one to manage the high school — but maintaining the local school board.

A state review panel that visited Adams 14 cited ineffective district leadership and recommended turning it over to an external manager.

Members of the State Board of Education had several critical questions for district leaders, especially around how much authority the district is willing to give up.

Superintendent Javier Abrego told the state board members that the external manager would not have control over hiring or firing staff.

Board member Steve Durham said that he sensed that both the Adams 14 school board and administration were unwilling to give up significant authority.

Durham earlier had pushed district leaders, including board President Connie Quintana, about whether they would voluntarily give up the right to approve every change an external manager might want to make.

Quintana said she would consider every one of the manager’s recommendation.

“They’re going to tell me what to do so I’m going to adhere to their directives,” Abrego tried to reassure Durham.

“Unless the board tells you to do something else,” Durham said. “It’s difficult to serve more than one master.”

When asked specifically about staffing, Quintana said she was not willing to give up that authority, and then when pushed further, said she would have to discuss it with the rest of the board and the district’s attorney.

State board members also said they had concerns that the district’s proposal sounds similar to its proposal last year, which hasn’t resulted in much progress.

Colorado law dictates that when a school or district has received one of the state’s two lowest ratings for more than five years in a row, the state must step in. Under the law passed earlier this decade, last year was the first year schools or districts could reach that five-year mark.

Those that did, including Adams 14, crafted plans with state officials to make changes and set goals for improvement.

Some low-performers have since improved, and a few others have more time to show progress. But state officials set a deadline of this fall for Adams 14 to earn higher ratings. The district failed to meet that goal.

Many of the changes the state board can order, such as merging districts, have never been tried in Colorado. But even so, Durham proposed that the state spell out what will happen if Adams 14 fails to give up full management authority. In that case, he proposed, the state’s order should state, that the district could lose accreditation and the district would have to start procedures to dissolve.

State board President Angelika Schroeder agreed Wednesday that that may be appropriate language.

The hearing was packed, with several people set up to watch the meeting from the building’s lobby. Among those who traveled to Denver for the hearing were teachers, parents, advocates, and the district’s entire five-member school board.

A couple of community members were disappointed they were not allowed to give public comment Wednesday. A nearly monthlong process for written community input closed on Monday.

State board members rejected the criticism that they had not sought out community input, referencing multiple times the “mountains” of written comments that have been submitted for them to review. Much of the public comment submitted to the state board came from teachers union leaders from across the state asking for the state board to avoid turning any of their schools to charter control.

new schools

Charter-school backers pack little-advertised Chicago hearing about new charters

PHOTO: Intrinsic Schools
Eighth-grade promotion at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago.

Charter-school supporters packed a little-publicized hearing called Wednesday evening to gather input on proposals to open three specialized charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

More than 50 people gathered before Margaret Fitzpatrick, an independent hearing officer hired by the district, to lobby her on proposals for three new schools. Intrinsic Charter School seeks approval for a citywide high school. Project Simeon 2000 proposes a middle school serving at-risk youth in Englewood. And Chicago Education Partnership wants to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

If approved, the schools would open for next school year.

As part of the first group of parents who sent their children to Intrinsic when it opened its first school, Lucy Weatherly said she unequivocally supported opening a second school under the network.  “We wanted something different for our son,” Weatherly said. “I owe them for a lifetime.”

“Intrinsic is a place that fully supports the holistic growth of students, who get a chance to really discover themselves,” said Ashley Ocanta Matthews, a teacher at Intrinsic.

While most speakers championed the charters proposals, teachers union representatives spoke forcefully against them.

“You deserve a raise, you deserve better healthcare, you deserve the ability to speak collectively with your boss, you deserve not to be terminated without cause,” said Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, directing his comments to teachers working at non-union charter schools.  “If you’re interested in joining a union, I’ll meet you in the hallway.”

Tension has been brewing at unionized charter schools. Teachers at the Acera charter network announced earlier Wednesday that they would strike on Dec. 4 if contract talks remain stalled.

The Chicago district already oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools, according to Hal Woods, director of school development with Chicago Public Schools. Contract schools are operated by private companies on contract and often offer a curriculum that differs from that in traditional schools. Option schools are privately run and serve students who have been expelled or previously incarcerated.

After a team including district employees from a variety of education fields and an out-of-state-analyst review each proposal, administrators will forward a recommendation to the board of education for a vote Dec. 5.

Intrinsic Charter School

Supporters, many from a current of Intrinsic Charter School, urged the district approve a second campus. The school, opened in 2013, has won a 1-plus rating, serving a student body that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 82 percent low-income.

The school touted its “personalized learning” model, in which a class of more than 60 students learn in “pods,” as the network calls classrooms, and move between projects and independent work. It is considering locating a new school at either 79 W. Monroe or 1357 N. Elston.

“I’m lucky we found Intrinsic,” said parent Angela Ibarra, one of many parents wearing Intrinsic T-shirts Wednesday. The school, she said, “fits my boy and is not one he had to find a way to fit into.”

Ibarra, mother of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates the individualized learning.

If approved the Intrinsic 2 high school would eventually serve 1,080 students.

Several teachers and parents spoke in support of Intrinsic, many wearing Intrinsic T-shirts. They focused on the varied paths that students could take after high school, either college or part-time work.

Kemet Leadership Academy Charter

The non-profit group Project Simeon 2000 has proposed  an alternative middle school focusing on black male students. It would feature project-based learning, comprehensive support services, and skills needed by local employers. Its supporters said the Chicago district is failing boys of color.

“I know from personal experience that it takes a black male with discipline to give black boys what they need,” said Francis Newman, mother of five African-American sons and a supporter of the proposed Kemet Academy Charter.  “No other community looks for someone outside the community to raise their children.”

The school would target students who have single parents, are more than one grade level behind academically, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. It would serve 500 students in Greater Englewood, at a campus possibly at 6201 S. Stewart  or 6520 S. Wood.

Moving Everest 2

The Moving Everest 2 school, backed by people with roots in Christian education, promises both a “joyful and character-building school environment” for 810 students by offering academic and after-school services in the Austin area.

Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director, promised a full-time social worker, dental care, and a third meal of the day to students.

Ortabia Townsend, a mother of seven, said that she knows Austin families who have strong connections to the first Moving Everest school.

“There is a lot of love at that school,” she said.

The school, run by the Chicago Education Partnership, is rated a 2-plus. The partnership seeks to open a second school even though its current campus, projected to serve 810 K-8 students, has enrolled only 444 students this year. The new school is proposed for 1830 N Leclaire Ave.

While the proposal does not mention Christian education values, several members of the school’s board of directors have their roots in Christian education. The after-school program that partners with the school, By the Hand, is a “Christ-centered” program.

After district leadership make recommendations on the schools, the school board will vote on the charter proposals Dec. 5.