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 [email protected]

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

Job One

Nashville’s grieving mayor visits schools on first day back to work

PHOTO: Michael Bunch/Metro Nashville
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry visits with a student at Buena Vista Elementary School on Monday, her first day back to work after the death of her only son to a drug overdose.

When Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came back to work this week after losing her only child to a drug overdose, her first stop was school.

She handed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived at Buena Vista Elementary School on the opening day of a new school year. She also dropped by Pearl-Cohn High School to chat with students in the hallways.

“That was really meaningful and special to me,” Barry told reporters later, “because the first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school, and our ritual was always that we would take a picture every day of the first day of school.”

Barry’s first order of business was both symbolic and therapeutic for the mayor, whose 22-year-old son died July 29 in Littleton, Colorado, where he had been working in construction.

“It was really great to be with kids this morning,” she said during an emotional news conference from her office on Monday. “The last nine days has been pretty — I don’t even have words.”

She noted that “every first day of school is a new beginning.”

In Nashville, home of the state’s second largest school district, Barry doesn’t control the schools, but she’s used her bully pulpit to help reshape public education since taking office in 2015. She worked with the school board to jump-start a misfired search for the city’s next schools director, ending with the hiring last year of Shawn Joseph, a top administrator from Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

She’s also sought to put 10,000 Nashville youth to work with “paid, meaningful internships” through an initiative that she says was inspired by a conversation with her son. He had bemoaned having to use his family connections to secure an internship while he was in college.

“My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville,” recalled Barry, who has pushed to combat rising youth violence by creating more activities outside of school.

Barry with Max as a youngster

Now, she has another new mission: fighting opioid abuse, after an autopsy showed that Max died from a combination of several drugs, including opioids.

“I don’t want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died,” she said. “The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.”

“This is not an unfamiliar community and nationwide conversation,” she said, noting that Nashville alone had 245 overdoses involving opioids last year. “It’s a national epidemic.”