school closures

Community proposes plan to save Carver High School, one of the few low-performing schools Shelby County hasn’t overhauled

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Carver High School served the Riverview neighborhood of South Memphis since 1957.

If the third time’s the charm for efforts to close George Washington Carver High School, it won’t be because the community gave up on the long-struggling school.

Local leaders have sprung to defend the school each time the district has proposed closing it, most recently in a surprise recommendation last month.

“You would think the third time, people think, ‘They’re going to do it anyway,’ so people would not show up to rallies,” said Ralph White, a Carver graduate who is also the pastor of neighboring Bloomfield Baptist Church. “But just the opposite happened. We’ve had better response this time.”

The outcry — and a community proposal to improve Carver — prompted the school board to reconsider the closure last week even as it moved ahead with shutting down other schools last month. Now, the community waits to learn this week whether Shelby County will try to move forward with closing the 198-student school this year, which the cash-strapped district says would save nearly $1 million a year.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Carver is one of the only low-performing schools in Shelby County that hasn’t been overhauled or closed in recent years — and uncertainty over its future has surely contributed to its decline.

White’s accounting of Carver’s closure attempts starts in the 1990s. But the contemporary era of school closures in Memphis began in 2012, when the state first named 69 low-scoring “priority schools” in the city that had to either improve or shut down. Almost all of those schools have since been taken over by the state-run Achievement School District; added to Shelby County’s Innovation Zone and given additional resources; or closed. Carver is one of just a few schools on the list not to change at all.

That’s not to say that the district hasn’t considered deploying those strategies at Carver, or that they haven’t affected the school.

Carver first faced closure in 2012, when the Shelby County and Memphis City school districts merged and considered closing schools with low enrollment as a way to use their pooled resources more effectively. Students testified in public hearings against the proposal, and ultimately the new board decided to close only a few schools that year. Carver wasn’t among them.

The following year, the school got what initially seemed to be a boost: The school board voted to fold Riverview Middle School into Carver, which would boost its enrollment and bring new resources. But the board reversed the decision when it realized that closing Riverview could mean giving up federal funds that were being used to improve it as part of the district’s iZone.

At the same time, the Achievement School District was considering adding Carver to its portfolio. A local advisory council set up to help the state-run district match schools to charter operators chose Green Dot Public Schools for Carver, but Green Dot officials said their outreach efforts at Fairley High School were more successful and chose to run that school instead. The episode left Carver with negative press but no new help.

Each time, the school’s advocates have breathed a sigh of relief when the school was removed from the chopping block, assured that the school that had been open since 1957 would survive.

But the school’s difficulties deepened over this period, as well, as it dropped to the fourth-lowest-performing in Tennessee according to the state’s rankings. Enrollment fell from 700 students a decade ago to fewer than 200 now, according to district officials, and the school found it hard to hold on to teachers.

Ralph White, Carver alumnus and pastor at Bloomfield Baptist Church (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)
Ralph White, Carver alumnus and pastor at Bloomfield Baptist Church (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)

The neighborhood saw its population decline during this time, but the uncertainty over Carver’s future also prompted students to transfer or not enroll, White said. Community organizer and former Memphis City Schools board member Sara Lewis pointed to an even broader effect of the repeated referendums on Carver’s existence.

“It just contributes to the further decline of the community,” she said. “And children think we as a community don’t really care about them.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members that the school is in such dire straits that there would be little value in keeping it open.

“The conditions over there in regard to the low enrollment and the constant turnover just make it a very difficult situation for anybody to thrive in,” Hopson said during the April meeting. “I would even say that the faculty there is really doing the best they can with what they have.”

The school’s 16 teachers, who would have to find new positions within the district or lose their jobs, have not participated in the public protests. Neither has Principal Alvin Harris, although he attended the most recent hearing, which drew about 200 people earlier this month. (Harris did not return a request for comment.)

Instead, support for the school has come mostly from the community leaders who have been at Carver’s side each time it was threatened. The George Washington Carver High School Alumni Association put together a community plan that represents the most specific set of suggestions community partners have come up with since the closure attempts started, White said.

The plan includes a proposal to expand Carver’s enrollment zone to include some territory that was rezoned to Hamilton High School when another area high school closed. It also plans for alumni, business leaders, and nonprofit partners to supply academic tutoring and reopen a family resource center at the school. And it urges Hopson to add Carver to the iZone.

Until he hears Hopson’s answers to the community plan this week, White said he’s still prepared to keep up the fight.

“It’s an ongoing effort,” he said. “We’re sleeping in our battle clothes.”

At the school’s recent community meeting on the proposed closure, school board member Shante Avant, whose district includes Carver, commended community members for supporting the school but noted that more alumni than current parents or students had spoken out.

She suggested that community members would do well to back the board’s plan to move Carver students to Hamilton High School, which is getting extra resources already as part of the district’s iZone and would get even more to support the new students.

“History is important,” Avant said. “But we have to think of the future of our children who are currently here.”

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.

turnaround

Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.