It's a start

Here’s a first look at how Tennessee schools could change under new federal law

PHOTO: TDOE
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits a Tennessee school as part of her Classroom Chronicles tour. The commissioner launched another statewide listening tour in May to gather feedback for Tennessee’s plan to transition to the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Should schools in Tennessee be held accountable when students miss too much school?

That’s one question that the State Department of Education will float during town hall meetings kicking off this week about its proposed plan for the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. State officials on Tuesday released a preview of the evolving plan, which touches on everything from school turnaround work to teacher preparation to English Language Learners.

Tennessee doesn’t intend to stray far from its five-year strategic plan outlined last year. However, the preview highlights potential changes in how the state measures school quality, provides resources to schools, and addresses low-performing schools. State officials will release the entirety of Tennessee’s first draft by the end of the month.

Town Hall Meetings

  • Knoxville, Dec. 6, 5:30 p.m.
  • Jackson, Dec. 8, 5 p.m
  • Memphis, Dec. 14, 5 p.m.
  • Nashville, Dec. 15, 5 p.m.
  • Chattanooga, TBD

ESSA, which Congress passed last year to replace No Child Left Behind, gives states and local districts more flexibility in how they run schools. But the law also adds provisions such as one that requires states to identify a measurement for school quality that’s unrelated to test scores.

The first draft of Tennessee’s new schools plan was assembled with input from educators during a listening tour last spring, and from groups of advocates, policymakers and educators consulted over the summer and fall. State officials will incorporate further public feedback before submitting Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring for approval.

It’s uncertain how President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will affect states’ plans under ESSA. The new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the civil rights and accountability law, potentially rendering months of guidance from current U.S. Secretary of Education John King moot.

At the very least, the transition in Washington, D.C., has pushed the deadline for states to submit their plans back by a month to April, and to implement plans back by a year to the 2018-19 school year.

Even so, Tennessee plans to stick to the original deadline and complete its final draft by March, one year after state officials first solicited public feedback on the law.

Here are some proposed changes highlighted in the preview:

Accountability

Tennessee would grade students in part based on chronic absenteeism as part of its new “opportunity to learn” metric, meant to satisfy ESSA’s requirement to evaluate schools with at least one “non-academic” measure. State officials want the new metric to show whether students are able to “grow and thrive” at their school, and might eventually incorporate a range of other data points into it, like school discipline.

Test scores still will figure prominently into how the state evaluates schools, although the preview doesn’t say how much they will count. In addition to achievement scores and growth, the state will grade schools on graduation rates, participation rates on state assessments, and for the first time, progress by English learner students in achieving English proficiency.

All of those factors will be used to assign schools with an A-F letter grade, a requirement of a 2015 state law. Although the letter grades are unrelated to ESSA, state officials are using the planning process to gather feedback on what factors should go into the grades.

“There will be multiple ways to show success, and all schools will have the opportunity to earn an ‘A,’” the preview states.

Low-performing schools

The preview suggests school improvement will become more transparent. ESSA still asks schools to identify its academically lowest 5 percent of schools, and the state would continue to issue a “priority list” of those schools every three years. But under the current draft, local districts would have more say in how to improve their low-performing schools. Currently, the state-run Achievement School District can take control of schools once they slip onto the priority list. The state proposes in coming years to give districts more time to improve schools on their own, and to clearly articulate its expectations and possible interventions for low-performing school according to set benchmarks for test scores and growth.

The state also might provide districts with more resources to improve priority schools through additional funding, as well as competitive grants.

English language learners

ESSA focuses more on English language learners than its predecessor, asking states to report on English proficiency and set clear guidelines for which students should receive English learner services. Beginning next July, Tennessee would use a new screener to determine that. For several years, the state’s English learner students have taken the WIDA assessment to test their language progress. Those scores would be publicly available for the first time under the state’s new plan, and would determine when students are able to graduate from English learner services.

Teacher and student support

Tennessee officials are using ESSA as an opportunity to focus on students’ needs beyond academics. The new U.S. law establishes a federal student support grant that districts can use for programs such as school counselors or school-based mental health services. The state’s plan would make sure that school counselors actually have time to counsel students, versus being tasked with other duties such as administering tests. Districts also would be able to apply for grants for arts, music and foreign language instruction and other enrichment opportunities.

Assessments

Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires at least 95 percent of students in grades 3-11 to take end-of-year tests. Tennessee already has pared down the length of its new TNReady assessments and is looking for ways to further winnow down tests for third- and fourth-grade students. The state also is considering subbing out end-of-year tests in 11th grade for the ACT, and is looking for ways to reduce smaller assessments throughout the year for the state’s academic intervention program, called  RTI, or Response to Instruction and Intervention.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”