Revoking charters

Criticized for how they closed troubled charter schools, Memphis leaders have a new plan

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Cynthia Allen chairs the Charter Advisory Committee formed in Memphis by Shelby County Schools and charter leaders.

Six months after state officials called out Shelby County Schools for its hastened closure of three charter schools in Memphis, the district is moving toward new guidelines that would significantly slow the process.

Last spring, it took only weeks for the struggling schools to be shuttered after Superintendent Dorsey Hopson asked the school board to revoke their charters amid a district budget crisis.

Under the proposed new guidelines, the same decision would take three years — and would be based on clearly defined criteria.

The recommended change, to be considered later this month by the school board, is designed to bring clarity to a fuzzy process for revoking charters in a district that is growing its charter sector every year. It would build in new steps that include notifications and time for operators to make improvements.

The proposal reflects an effort by Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer to respond to state and local cries for clearer rules to guide its oversight of charter schools. It also represents a major concession by district leaders, even as they stand to score a significant win under a separate proposal recommending that charter operators pay the district an annual fee to fund their oversight.

Ultimately, revamping the revocation process would eliminate the surprise factor that some charter leaders say they experienced last spring when six low-performing schools were recommended for closure without significant notice. The State Board of Education later upheld the local board’s vote to revoke three charters — but not before rapping the district’s process for authorizing charters without a contract, as well its expedited decision to revoke the charters in the middle of budget season.

The proposed guidelines are the result of ongoing negotiations between district and charter leaders on the new Charter Advisory Committee. The group has been meeting since July in an effort to develop policies that give the district sufficient oversight authority while giving schools the autonomy to operate and innovate based on Tennessee’s charter school law.

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools, helped to craft the new plan.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation for Shelby County Schools, helped to craft the new plan.

The committee voted unanimously in October to recommend the proposed revocation process that was developed under the leadership of state Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation. It would be grounded in academic criteria based on a charter school report card being crafted by the district, as well as an “operations scorecard” highlighting the charter’s performance on finances, student discipline, and federal and state compliance, among other criteria.

Here’s a breakdown of the proposed revocation process:

  1. Charter schools that do not meet minimum expectations under the two assessments would be notified by the district.
  2. Within a month, the school’s leadership would meet with Shelby County Schools and present an action plan to address the low performance.
  3. The district may check in as the action plan is implemented, but would give full autonomy to the charter school, meaning the district wouldn’t give an opinion on the plan’s quality or likelihood of success.
  4. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a second consecutive school year, the district will notify charter leaders again.
  5. A second action plan would be drawn up.
  6. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a third consecutive school year, the district’s administration would recommend revocation to the school board.

While the revocation timeline calls for years instead of weeks, some charter leaders said it’s still too short to adequately address problems, especially given this year’s delays in receiving results from Tennessee’s new standardized test.

“I think we all agree that students shouldn’t be in a school that’s failing year after year,” said Brittany Monda, interim executive director of Memphis College Prep. “But when you’re notified, it’s really just two years of consecutive data.”

Conversely, Leon argued that charter leaders should have a pulse on student performance even before the data is released.

“I think it’s more unfair that you’ve exposed children to a fourth year simply because of the timing of test score data,” Leon said.

The school board is scheduled to review the proposal during its Nov. 29 work session and vote on it on Dec. 6.

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”