Making the grade

Tennessee schools soon will receive letter grades. But will poverty be considered?

Tennessee is developing a new system to evaluate its schools based on the same A-F grading scale its students receive. But not everyone agrees on what should constitute an A.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education looked closely at grading models as they seek to comply with both a new state law that requires each school be assigned a letter grade and a new federal law that focuses on all aspects of school accountability.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has strong feelings about what shouldn’t be a factor: poverty.

“Poverty … shouldn’t be the reason you don’t even have an opportunity to get an A,” she told the State Board of Education on Thursday.

As such, state officials are proposing two avenues for schools to get an A on achievement: 1) high test scores, which would tend to favor schools with fewer poor students and more resources, and 2) substantial test score growth, which would provide a pathway for schools that are more diverse.

But others think that opening up the top grade to schools that aren’t necessarily top performers would undermine the grading system.

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney says growth is important, but that achievement scores are more important. He represents one of the state’s highest-performing and wealthiest districts and participated Thursday night in a town hall meeting in Nashville to discuss Tennessee’s accountability plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy Tucker, a State Board of Education member representing part of Nashville and Williamson County, expressed similar concerns. She said that including growth in a grade would be misleading, and not in the spirit of the state law.

“That statute was intended for parents to be able to look at a school and see what level of education they’re getting,” said Tucker, who is also co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a nonprofit organization focused on Nashville’s public schools. “I think growth is great. I just don’t think it’s an A.”

But McQueen and her team defended the two-pronged model. Test scores don’t paint the full picture of school quality, said Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns. “Just because you walk into a school that has a lot of high-achieving students does not mean there’s a culture of excellence there,” Towns said.

McQueen added that the state’s education messaging as a whole has been around growth, rather than raw achievement. Education leaders often tout Tennessee as “the fastest improving in the nation” as the state’s scores on national tests have moved from the bottom to the middle.

“Growth is the model we have used, and it has really worked for Tennessee,” McQueen said. “We believe that this is a fair, just model that we’ll continue to get feedback on.”

Under the state’s ESSA plan, one group of schools could not make an A. Schools that are dubbed “priority schools” — those ranking academically in the bottom 5 percent that also have low growth scores for two consecutive years — would receive automatic Fs.

While test scores or growth would be the driving factor in a school’s grade under the state’s proposed plan, schools also would be evaluated on chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, access to college credit courses, and the proficiency rates of  English language learners.

ESSA requires for the first time that states give their schools “summative” ratings. Those ratings don’t have to be A to F letter grades, but Tennessee’s legislature passed a law last year requiring schools be assigned a letter grade. The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and has been adopted in several other states.

One, Virginia, already has repealed school letter grades, in part because ‘F’ schools had difficulty recruiting teachers. Other critics charge that letter grades lack nuance and oversimplify the link between poverty and low test scores, potentially stigmatizing low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend those schools.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.