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.

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.