Challenging charters

Report: Why the work is hard for Tennessee’s turnaround district and its charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Charter schools operating through Tennessee’s 4-year-old school turnaround district have struggled to achieve the initiative’s lofty goals due to a variety of challenges — some unique to the state-run charter program, and some common to all Memphis schools, a new report says.

Tasked with transforming some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools through the Achievement School District, or ASD, the charter operators have grappled with “daunting challenges” that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition, according to the report released this week by researchers led by George Washington University.

The report, which is based on 140 interviews with leaders of the ASD and nine operators, illuminates some of the reasons why the state-run district has not come close to reaching its targeted goals of moving schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years.

Researchers also identify practices that charter operators are using to try to overcome the challenges, although they say it’s too soon to say whether the strategies have been effective. Those include instructional adaptations, computer-assisted learning and additional wraparound services.

The ASD’s work is concentrated in Memphis, where it manages 22 charter schools and five district-run schools. Many of the challenges identified by researchers — like high student mobility and lack of parent engagement — are endemic to most Memphis schools, including Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, which has drawn national attention for its academic gains, and which so far has been more effective than the ASD at boosting students’ scores.

But the paper’s authors argue that “ASD operators had to contend with many of the constraints that impede traditional schools, yet without the benefits that a conventional district could provide,” such as centralized special education services, resources that leverage economies of scale, and a long history with the community. And though the district aims to give them the benefits of other charter schools, like a high-level of autonomy, the ASD schools face challenges most charters do not.

The report comes at a time when several states such as North Carolina and Georgia are considering replicating Tennessee’s school turnaround district, which takes control of low-performing schools and assigns them to high-quality charter management organizations to turn around.

The paper provides a candid look at Tennessee’s much-watched effort to employ high-profile charter operators in school turnaround work in an environment that is substantially different from their usual circumstances. While many charters have been successful working with disadvantaged students, they historically have been reluctant to embrace conditions such as turnaround environments — for instance, having to assume control over existing neighborhood schools, rather than operating schools with open choice. But in Tennessee, where federal Race to the Top funding led to the creation its state-run district in 2010, many charter organizations were recruited and incentivized to join the portfolio of schools managed by the ASD and granted broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting.

“While charter operators were not naïve about the conditions in the ASD, many did not fully anticipate how much these differences (within turnaround environments) would influence their instructional and organizational designs, expand their mission, and require complex adaptations,” the authors write.

The researchers’ findings will be “a great conversation starter” within the ASD and with Shelby County Schools, said Bobby S. White, chief of external affairs for the state-run district.

“It’s good for people to see and get a feel for the challenges these charters are facing,” White said Wednesday. “It underscores how these operators are adapting in the face of these realities.”

White said the district will use the report to assess what parts of these challenges it can control or influence as charter operators adjust. The report also will help charter applicants to better understand the realities of school turnaround work in Memphis.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, put it this way when speaking with researchers: “When I’m talking to people now, I’m like, this is the big leagues. If you want to play the equivalent to basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats where every single game is huge, it’s a circus, you’re under intense scrutiny, the pressure to perform is incredible. … If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, come to Memphis.”

The main challenges faced by charter schools in the ASD, according to the researchers, are:

Student mobility. Like traditional public schools, but unlike most charter schools, ASD schools serve a steady flow of new students throughout the school year, making it harder to hone in on the learning challenges of students and offer tailored instruction. More than one-third of students in ASD schools move in or out of their schools during the school year, an improvement over student mobility at the schools prior to ASD takeover, and comparable to mobility in iZone schools.

One operator told researchers that leaders had expected the school’s third year of operation to be “the dream year” as students finally adjusted to the school’s culture and caught up to grade level. “Instead, it was very similar to our first year because of all the new students who arrived on our campus,” the operator said.

"Despite the ardent commitment of ASD leaders to create the conditions that would enable CMOs and independent operators to take root and flourish in the turnaround space, the inherited rules of the game, the institutional environment in which they were located, and the stresses of an impoverished community presented even the most experienced providers with steep challenges."Consortium report

While most educators in traditional Memphis schools are familiar with high student mobility, most charter operators weren’t. Most charter schools in other states aren’t neighborhood schools; families have to choose them. That makes it easier for charters to create a common school culture and get students and families to subscribe to a set of behavioral expectations — two factors considered key to charter schools’ successes. But Tennessee legislation requires ASD schools to recruit students within the boundaries of the school’s neighborhood attendance areas, or from other low-performing schools, restricting charters’ usual ability to draw from a broad pool of families.

Special education.  ASD operators serve a substantially higher concentration of students with special needs than is typical in other charter schools in Tennessee, one of the “most formidable financial and educational challenges” identified by the report’s authors because of the ASD’s funding model and relatively small size.

While Shelby County Schools and most other districts are able to centralize and share special education services across schools, the ASD is built on the idea of autonomy — meaning each school bears the cost of their special education students’ needs alone. Many ASD operators in Memphis send special education students to programs managed by Shelby County Schools and told the researchers that they suspected they were being overcharged for programs that they also did not deem high quality.

Some operators also told researchers that Shelby County Schools often became a barrier to serving special education students. According to the paper, some operators reported that the local district made it difficult to access students’ individualized education plans, known as IEPs, after the students transitioned to the ASD, which made it difficult for the new ASD schools to identify students’ needs and plan on how to support them.

“There was supposed to be a process in place to transfer all the files to us. And somehow that didn’t necessarily take place,” one operator said. “ So I played find the files. You know, they gave me a key and said the files are in a black filing cabinet. And so I still have the key — I still don’t have the files.”

Local politics. Operators were not prepared for the high level of opposition they would face in Memphis, or the compromises to their models they would have to make to respond to the local district and the community, the report says.

“This has been humbling for me,” said one operator who came to Tennessee from another state. “I’ve learned so much about just how complex education can be in particular landscapes.”

A major compromise has been the political shift requiring operators to take control of entire schools, rather than just a grade at a time. Leaders of Shelby County Schools barred phase-ins in 2014, saying the process was too disruptive for Shelby County students and faculty forced to share a school building with the ASD. While some operators, such as Green Dot Public Schools, always assumed control of whole schools, other operators never had — or planned to.

Researchers suggest that the community opposition to the ASD might have made leaders with Shelby County Schools wary of collaborating with the state-run district.

That being said, the ASD’s White told Chalkbeat that he is optimistic about the relationship between the districts.

“You’re starting to see conversations being had and realizations regarding the need to have these conversations,” White said.

The report was released by George Washington University, the University of Michigan, and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.

Cut off

Michigan’s third-grade reading law could penalize bilingual programs

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Elementary schoolers in an English class at Academy of the Americas in Southwest Detroit. More than 70 percent of third-graders at the school could be held back starting in 2020.

The grocery store down the street from Academy of Americas blasts Mexican pop music over the radio. A few blocks away, a taco truck takes orders in English and Spanish. On the Academy’s playground, third-graders go about the business of play using whichever language happens to land on their tongues.

Back in the classroom, kindergartners learn to add, subtract, and find the United States on a map using Spanish. Third-graders sit through English class, then walk across the hall for science class with a teacher who addresses them only in Spanish.  The school, like the Southwest Detroit neighborhood that surrounds it, is truly bilingual, and it has the support of parents and experts who argue that “language immersion” at an early age helps English- and Spanish-speakers effectively learn two languages for the price of one.

But dual-language immersion programs like this one are about to run smack into a controversial state law. Beginning in 2020, third-graders at Academy of the Americas won’t be able to move on to the fourth grade until they pass a state reading exam — in English.

Critics have raised a wide range of questions about the 2016 law, which would have caused nearly half of Michigan students to be held back a grade if the law took effect last year.

But perhaps most puzzling is that a law designed to improve literacy in Michigan could penalize the small handful of programs with a track record of teaching students  — especially English learners — to read in not one, but two languages.

When 89 third-graders at the Academy took the test in 2016, only a single student met state standards. If the law had been in effect, almost every one would have repeated the third grade.

While the school is among the most highly sought programs in the district, the low reading scores were not terribly surprising. Kindergarten classes at the academy are conducted in Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. By the third grade, students hear  Spanish for 60 percent of the day. Experts in bilingual education say students in such programs typically fall behind their English-only peers in reading, then catch up around middle school.

But under state law, third-graders in Michigan’s roughly 10 bilingual programs could be held back anyway.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Norma Hernandez, the district’s former director of the Office of Bilingual Education. “Our kids are going to be left behind.”

Academy of the Americas was founded by Hispanic parents determined to help their children hold on to their native language. Learning English, they knew, was both inevitable and necessary in the United States. But why couldn’t a school also help children master the language spoken at the family dinner table?

As it turns out, dual-immersion schools like the Academy are backed by solid research showing that students who learn more than one language from an early age tend to catch up to their monolingual peers in English reading. This holds true even for students who speak Spanish at home, and it also helps them maintain their native language. More than 1,000 similar programs are in place across the country.

“They’re learning to read and write in both languages,” said Cecilia Jungo, a parent at the school, speaking in Spanish. “They’re totally bilingual,” she added.

Earlier this month, folders were propped up on every desk in a third-grade social studies classroom at the Academy, forming a barrier in case students felt tempted to scan their neighbors’ tests. As some began to fidget, the teacher slipped in a vocabulary lesson.

“If you are already finished with the test,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “just put your head on the — what?”

“The table!” the students shouted — also in Spanish.

In the hallway outside, Principal Nicholas Brown said that this minilesson will eventually improve the students’ performance on language tests, in English as well as Spanish.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write,” he said. “When they learn to read in Spanish, they are able to transfer those skills to English, so that when English is introduced they’re able to attack it.”

He admits that this approach won’t pay dividends on English reading tests right away, but says they will catch up by middle school.

But this model of reading is “not the same theory that the lawmakers were adhering to when they developed the law,” said Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State who studies bilingual education. Legislators pointed to a different body of research — studies showing that students who don’t learn to read English well by the third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Both models may hold some truth, Winke said, but the law only makes room for one. The learning patterns of bilingual students, well-established by researchers, were apparently “not considered,” she added.  

Researchers at Michigan State are studying how the law will affect all students in immersion programs, including native English speakers. But they have already concluded that third-graders who speak English as a second language could be held back at disproportionate rates. According to Winke’s analysis of previous years’ test data, some 70 percent could be flunked.

Those projections are forcing dual-language programs to make tough decisions, especially when most of their students arrive in kindergarten speaking a language other than English.

Escuela Avancemos!, a charter school that stands only a few blocks from the Academy, offers some of its students a similar dual-language program. Kindergartners – most of whom speak Spanish at home — hear and speak Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. The proportion of English rises in each subsequent year.

But thanks to the reading law, that could change. “We’ve had to play around with those percentages,” Principal Sean Townsin told Chalkbeat during a school visit last month. “We’ve had to tweak it a little bit, especially in anticipation of the third-grade reading law.”

Townsin acknowledges that an extra hour or two of English instruction per day might not be enough to save his students from repeating the third grade. Last year, 39 of the 47 students tested in reading would have flunked. He also plans to assemble samples of students’ work, taking advantage of a section of the law that allows students to prove their reading ability to the state by submitting a portfolio instead of taking a test.

Brown, principal at the Academy, also plans to send portfolios to the state, but he won’t reduce the amount of Spanish students hear in class. He thinks the bilingual program is largely responsible for the school’s enrollment growth of 50 percent in the last two decades, no small accomplishment in a city where schools compete fiercely for students.

What’s more, he says parents would revolt if  he watered down the immersion program.

“At the end of the day, our parents are very clear” in their support for the program,” he explained. “The school was created as a direct response to a community need.”

The Academy was founded in 1992 by a group of Hispanic parents who wanted a school that wouldn’t alienate the children of Southwest Detroit from the language of their grandparents. They believed that hearing teachers and classmates speak Spanish would help students stay connected to their culture and make them more employable.

Brown, the son of a Venezuelan and a Louisianan, knew first-hand that in traditional schools, English can replace a student’s native language rather than complement it. He says he rejected Spanish as a teenager and refused to speak it for seven years, relenting only after a visit to Venezuela made clear that the language was a link to his family.

These days, when students say “hello” in the halls, he responds in Spanish.

But he knows that these students could soon pay a price for their bilingualism. Flunking a grade can have severe emotional consequences, and there is little evidence that repeating a grade is beneficial to a child’s learning in the long-run.

“If students are retained because they didn’t pass a reading test, that’s going to hinder their education,” said Diane Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in bilingual education. “If those legislators went to another country, and they were given three years to pass an exam in a second language, I’m wondering if they’d be able to pass it.”

Brown, for his part, is waiting for clarification about the law before it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said, adding that he would like to see the law changed: “I hope the program will speak for  itself.”

Barring a change in course from the Legislature, his hopes rest with parents and with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Under the law, parents can request an exemption if their child fails the third-grade reading test, but the request must be approved by the superintendent for the child to move on to the next grade.

deysi martinez
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deysi Martinez, president of the PTA at Academy of the Americas, says the state should test third-graders there in Spanish.

Parents at the Academy, however, argue that the state shouldn’t use its resources to grade student portfolios and process exemptions to the law.

Deysi Martinez, PTA president, noted that some states, like California and Colorado, allow students in immersion programs to prove their reading skills by taking additional reading tests in Spanish.

“In third grade, they’re reading mostly in Spanish,” she said of students at the Academy. “It doesn’t make sense for the test to be in English.”