elephant in the room

Four things to know out of this week’s special school board meeting on Memphis grade tampering

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
More than 150 people showed up to hear Shelby County Schools board discuss a review of grading irregularities.

Nine months after a Memphis principal first reported grading irregularities at Trezevant High School, the school board has called out Superintendent Dorsey Hopson for leaving them out of the loop about an investigation that now includes all high schools in Shelby County Schools.

Tension and emotions were high Thursday night during the specially called meeting as members of both the board and community sought explanations for Hopson’s handling of allegations by Principal Ronnie Mackin.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said he wanted to clear the air swirling around Mackin’s charges of a cover-up of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities” by district leadership — claims that Hopson has forcefully denied.

The two-hour discussion ended with board members chastising Hopson for poor communication on the matter even as, one by one, they voiced support to keep him at the helm of Tennessee’s largest school district.

Hopson apologized for falling short, cautioned against a “rush to judgment” about Mackin’s allegations, and promised to get to the bottom of it all.

“No matter what happens, no matter where investigation leads, we’re going to hold (people) accountable,” he pledged.

Here are four things to know from Thursday’s meeting:

There are two ongoing investigations stemming from Mackin’s allegations, and the board is considering whether to order its own.

After completing an internal review, the district hired a North Carolina auditing firm to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools, including Trezevant. Beginning this month, that company will scan every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review is expected to be complete by the end of July.

The district also has hired a three-person team of lawyers to investigate non-academic allegations — including financial fraud and inappropriate sexual relationships among school employees — made by Mackin in his seven-page resignation letter. Looking into those are: Edward Stanton III, former U.S. Attorney for Western District of Tennessee; Paul Lancaster Adams; and J. Scott Newton, a lawyer at Baker Donelson and former FBI agent.

Caldwell raised that the board has the option to conduct its own investigation, but members took no action to pursue that track.

Revelations that arose from Mackin’s resignation last week have created tension between Hopson and the board.

Less than two weeks after voting unanimously to extend Hopson’s contract by another two years, board members criticized him for not informing members sooner about the breadth of the investigation.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“… We all have a serious role to play, and ours is of oversight. We have to maintain that,” Caldwell said.

Stephanie Love said the lack of transparency had put her in a difficult position with her constituents in Frayser.

“Had I known that there was an investigation going on … I would have had had the opportunity to reassure my community that the district was doing what it was supposed to do,” she said.

The exchanges were in stark contrast to typical board meetings where members generally approve Hopson’s recommendations with minimal discussion.

But the grading issues won’t affect Hopson’s contract extension.

After hearing worries from several principals and teachers that Hopson’s contract extension might be rescinded, the board clarified that such an action wasn’t on the table Thursday night, even as an item related to Hopson’s contract was on the agenda.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students hold signs in support of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“(The discussion) was never not to extend the superintendent’s contract; it was merely for us to be able to have our legal counsel to review the contract,” Caldwell said.

Teresa Jones, another board member, said Hopson’s lax communication about the grading issues and investigation point to a lack of clarity around the board’s expectations of the superintendent, whose initial contract was negotiated with a completely different board.

“From statements today, there are some challenges with the superintendent and this board,” she said. “That does not mean that there’s a desire that he not remain the leader. But it’s an opportunity for us to look at the core of how we want to go forward as a board.”

The allegations have unearthed community concerns that grading irregularities go far beyond Trezevant.

Several stakeholders questioned how deep and far back this goes, despite assurances from Hopson that the issues are isolated.

“This is a systemic issue,” said Michael Pleasants, a teacher at Hamilton High School. “There’s been pressuring of teachers and fiddling with one thing or another.”

Hopson said the vast majority of employees “do what is right every day,” but that the actions of a small number are the issue.

“When there are these broad sweeping allegations, there’s just a cloud of doubt that hangs over everybody’s head,” he said.

The nine-member board is scheduled to meet on June 20 for its regular work session.

Four members — Kevin Woods, Shante Avant, Billy Orgel and Scott McCormick — were absent from Thursday’s special meeting.

Do you have evidence of grading irregularities in your school? Contact Chalkbeat at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: