Next moves

During its year off from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district eyes Chattanooga

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A student at work at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

With its one-year hiatus from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district is focusing on adding supports for its 33 existing schools in Memphis and Nashville, with an eye toward possible expansion in Chattanooga beginning in 2018.

Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson also met earlier this month with Shawn Joseph, the new superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. However, White said he did not know whether that meeting, which also included state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, included talks about possible further expansion in Nashville, where the ASD now operates two schools.

Most of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools have either been closed or are already under turnaround plans through the ASD or Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee’s fourth largest district, saw its standardized test scores decline in 2015 and has been in transition since March when Rick Smith resigned as superintendent. The city has launched a school improvement initiative known as Chattanooga 2.0 to increase pre-K access, literacy rates and career readiness.

Five Chattanooga schools were on Tennessee’s 2014 list of priority schools — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically — which would have made them eligible for state intervention:

  • Brainerd High
  • Dalewood Middle
  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Orchard Knob Middle
  • Woodmore Elementary

The next priority school list is scheduled to be released next summer, but the state released a warning list earlier this year of schools in danger. In addition to the five Hamilton County on the 2014 list, this year’s list of schools in the bottom 5 percent includes:

  • Clifton Hills Elementary
  • The Howard School in Chattanooga

Nashville also is ripe for more state intervention. The city had 15 schools on the 2014 priority school list, including Neely’s Bend Middle, which the ASD took control of in 2015. This year’s warning list included 11 of those schools and four additional schools* in the bottom 5 percent:

  • Kirkpatrick Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Buena Vista Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Napier Elementary Enhancement Option
  • Inglewood Elementary
  • John B Whitsitt Elementary
  • Bailey STEM Magnet Middle
  • Madison Middle
  • Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High
  • Robert Churchwell Elementary
  • Jere Baxter Middle
  • Joelton Middle
  • Wright Middle*
  • Warner Elementary Enhanced Option*
  • McKissack Middle*
  • Whites Creek High*

The state’s next priority list will be based on two years of test data instead of the normal three because of this year’s failed rollout of TNReady, the state’s new standardized test.

The ASD’s entrance into Chattanooga would be more deliberate and methodical than it was in Memphis, according to White. He said the district plans to learn from missteps in taking control of schools in Memphis, which prompted deep distrust between the state-run district and the community.

“Memphis did not have the benefit of a long runway,” he said of the ASD’s startup in 2012. “A longer runway allows us to deal with misconceptions on the front end. … Sometimes the best efforts are undermined by bad information.”

Talks with Chattanooga leaders won’t necessarily lead to school takeovers, emphasized Lauren Walker, ASD chief of staff.

“We want to get under the hood and understand the context there,” Walker said. “The (warning) list only gives a small picture of what’s happening.”

Hamilton County Schools has its own Innovation Zone for school turnaround work, but it has not seen the same academic gains as Shelby County Schools’ iZone.

While the warning list does not carry the same weight as the priority list, it offers districts a sneak peek at which schools might be eligible for state intervention beginning in 2018. One reason for new additions to the warning list is that the bar for the state’s bottom 5 percent has risen as priority schools see academic growth. In 2012, when the first list came out, the lowest percent of students learning at grade level at a school was 16.7. Last year, that number rose to 26 percent, according to state data aggregated by the ASD.

In announcing its school takeover hiatus in April, the ASD left room to open new schools during the interim. None are slated to open as new starts in 2016-17 school year, but that is a possibility for the following year. Charter operators under the ASD run five new-start schools, all in Memphis.

The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.

“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reins of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.