Once a shining star, Craigmont High School’s planetarium due for a makeover

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Walking down the center aisle of a unique theater that once was a source of pride for Craigmont High School, principal Tisha Durrah gestures at the hundred or so empty seats, headrests pointed skyward, sitting under a large white dome.

“All of this is just defunct,” Durrah said of the planetarium at the 40-year-old Memphis school. “If you see all of this equipment, the lights, the lighting, I mean, look how antiquated it is. … There’s a cassette tape somewhere here.”

One of at least four district-run planetariums in Tennessee, Craigmont’s was built for $150,000 and opened with the new school in 1975 in the Raleigh community. Thousands of people, including many groups of students, sat under its dome to gaze at the stars and watch programs produced and presented by students and long-time director Duncan Teague.

But after Teague retired in 2008 and the equipment became dated, the planetarium went dark in 2010. Now the space is used for classes and ceremonies and for the school’s football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah

Durrah, who became principal in 2015, wants to restore Craigmont’s planetarium to its former glory with the help of alumni, a GoFundMe campaign and hopefully seed money from Shelby County Schools.

Estimates vary on how many thousands of dollars that will cost. But Durrah is making the project a priority.

“I think with us having a STEM program here, this is so necessary,” she explained.

There’s much work to be done. The planetarium’s control panel now collects dust in the back of the room next to thick yellowing computers and outdated box speakers. Still, its glory days are vivid in the minds of teachers and students who first brought the planetarium to life.

Teague still remembers which buttons to press and the specific order of the switches on the control panel. He lists the names of planetarium students he taught through the years, including one who went on to work for the Johnson Space Center in Houston and several others who also have made careers in astronomy.

For Teague, the planetarium was first and foremost a teaching tool — a way to make others excited about the universe through the study of astronomy.

“Some people want a planetarium show experience to be a backdrop for showing visuals. … They just want to use the instrument in the center of the room like you’d use the wallpaper on your cell phone, just like a pretty decoration,” he said. “And I thought a planetarium was for teaching, and that was my approach.”

Retired planetarium director Duncan Teague poses with a U.S. postage stamp sleeve signed by the first six women in space.
Retired planetarium director Duncan Teague poses with a U.S. postage stamp sleeve signed by the first six women in space.

Under Teague’s watch, Craigmont students produced a newsletter about the cosmos, presented plays using the planetarium’s special effects, and even hosted an astronaut and a moon rock for a special event. Teague and his students also built websites in the early days of the Internet, including a “Mission to Mars” website that received an international award through a ThinkQuest competition.

Another highlight came in March of 1986 when Halley’s Comet made its twice-in-a-lifetime sweep through the solar system and was visible from Earth. The Raleigh planetarium hosted hundreds of people in the middle of one night to locate the famous comet on a star map on the dome, then walk outside to view the real celestial phenomenon through a telescope.

“People left with smiles on their faces, and that’s what you want when they leave a planetarium,” Teague said.

Lisa Bowling, a member of Craigmont’s first graduating class, is helping Durrah to drum up alumni support to resurrect her alma mater’s planetarium. She recalls how the attraction drew hundreds of people from surrounding communities every year to Craigmont, then a new school.

“I was just sadly surprised that it was not in working order,” Bowling said of its current status. “It kind of sunk in my stomach that the school just let it fall by the wayside.”

After 35 years of overseeing Craigmont planetarium, Teague still lives in the Memphis area but has no dreams of being at the control panel again. He is optimistic, however, about its future.

“I hope I will be invited to the reopening,” he said with a grin.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”