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.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy DeVos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.