Charter reset

Memphis education leaders are liking Tennessee’s charter school bill, despite having little initial input

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
The Tennessee Charter School Center hosted its fifth annual enrollment fair in March in Memphis. Tennessee has 107 charter schools, 71 of which are in Memphis.

Education leaders in Memphis have worked for several years to forge a delicate coalition for addressing thorny challenges that come with having the state’s fastest-growing charter sector.

So some were surprised when the State Department of Education didn’t consult them while working to overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law with a bill now winding through the legislature. Only after the bill was introduced this winter did the state seek input from charter operators, local districts and advocacy groups.

That’s protocol for the State Department, which generally writes bills based on questions and experiences collected over time from districts and schools. “It’s just the way that the administration drafts bills. … They never share bill language until it’s introduced,” spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said last week.

But the process frustrated some Memphis leaders who had no knowledge that sweeping changes were in the works.

“It seemed like someone should have reached out to Shelby County Schools,” said school board member Stephanie Love.

Love and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first heard about the proposed overhaul in February while visiting the State Capitol to lobby against a school voucher bill in the legislature. Now that she’s reviewed the measure, Love believes the proposal is aligned with the direction of charter policies in the state’s largest district. “There may be some things I don’t like, but I believe it’s workable,” she said.

Members of the 26-member Memphis charter coalition say they’re also fairly pleased with the proposal, and they agree it’s long overdue. It’s also obvious from suggested revisions that state leaders were paying attention to conversations already happening in Shelby County.

Among the bill’s provisions are an annual fee paid by charter operators to local districts to help pay for the sector’s oversight; adopting national standards for reviewing applications; and creating a detailed evaluation and revocation process — all issues that Memphis district and charter leaders have been sorting out with local solutions since they began working together last year.

Luther Mercer, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s time for the state’s law to be fine-tuned as is charter sector grows up and deals with difficult issues such as accountability, funding and facilities.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, co-chairs Shelby County Schools’ charter advisory committee.

“The bill is meant to close loopholes and bring more of a framework for charters and districts to work under,” said Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Tennessee’s charter school law has had few changes since its passage in 2002, but the state’s charter sector has mushroomed to 107 schools, including 71 in Memphis. Nashville has the second-largest pool with 30 schools.

Titled the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act, the bill would give local districts the authorizer fee they have clamored for and would require them to adopt national standards in their processes. In recent months, Memphis operators have shown a willingness to pay that fee, especially as the district’s charter office committed to standards by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Districts also would have to come up with a detailed process for revoking underperforming charter schools and a framework for outlining academic requirements for charter schools. In Memphis, fuzziness over the district’s standards resulted last year in several district-charter battles that were appealed to the State Board of Education. Ultimately, Shelby County Schools won those appeals, but not before members of the State Board chastised the district for its lack of policy clarity. The Memphis coalition has since agreed on a detailed revocation process.

Under the bill, the state must have a similar evaluation system to track achievement gaps between historically underserved student groups, financial management, and student readiness for life after high school.

It also would establish a fund to help charter operators lease or buy and improve deteriorating buildings, which is one of their biggest expenses.

One provision would require local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request and prohibits those schools from sharing that information with third parties without consent. The provision would address complaints by Memphis charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District, who charged last year that the local district withheld student data that would help them to register students zoned for their schools. It also would give a nod to Shelby County Schools, which accused the state-run district of giving that information over to Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that contacted parents about school performance data.

Brad Leon, whose office oversees charters in Shelby County Schools, declined to comment about the charter school bill. However, others on the committee say the synergy between the proposal and their work in Memphis is encouraging.

“I think it should enhance the work,” said Brittany Monda, executive director Memphis College Prep.

Below is a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education about how it went about getting input from across the state to draft and revise the bill:

“One of our duties at the department is to listen to the issues that are important to the Tennessee education community, and throughout this year we heard from districts, operators, advocates, etc., about the issues that matter most to them, including those involving charter schools in Tennessee.

Based on questions and experiences we have heard from districts and schools over the past few years, and based on vagueness in some provisions of the current charter law, the department drafted a comprehensive charter school bill. After the High-Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced, we sought feedback from a wide group of stakeholders and drafted a new amendment based on that feedback.

To gather feedback, the commissioner held a call that all charter operators and all charter authorizers were invited to join. Additionally, advocacy groups like TOSS, TSBA, Tennessee Charter School Center, TennesseeCAN, and Tennesseans for Student Success provided feedback that we took into consideration. We feel the legislation in its current form reflects the input of all stakeholders and will help strengthen the charter sector in Tennessee.”

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.”