widening probe

Here are more allegations from a principal’s letter that’s shaking up Memphis schools

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Ronnie Mackin checks on a student's work in 2016 when he was principal at Raleigh Egypt Middle School. Mackin was chief administrator the following school year at Trezevant High School, now the center of several investigations that started as a result of Mackin's allegations.

Grade tampering isn’t the only concern being investigated in Shelby County Schools in the aftermath of this month’s fiery resignation letter from a Memphis principal.

While false academic reports are at the center of a review initiated in consultation with state education officials, allegations of workplace harassment, racial discrimination and bribes also are listed in the seven-page letter by former Trezevant High School Principal Ronnie Mackin.

Now, the district has secured a three-member investigative team to look into those matters. They include some big names with high standing in the legal community — a move that points to the seriousness with which district officials are taking the allegations.

During this week’s special called school board meeting, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the outside team is necessary to “make sure (the investigation) was impartial.”

The newest probe was announced by Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel who was briefly mentioned in Mackin’s letter. The outgoing principal wrote that, as part of an internal review, Moore met last fall with students whom the former head football coach had allegedly paid to attend the high school with the assurance that someone would “take care of the grades.”

Here are the special investigators and what each will look into. You can click on the highlighted words to read excerpts of allegations from Mackin’s letter:

Edward Stanton III
Paul Lancaster Adams

Edward Stanton III, a lawyer with Butler Snow and former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee — generalized allegations, such as improper conduct, cover-up of transcript changes and “maltreatment.”

Scott Newton, a lawyer with Baker Donelson and former FBI agent — allegation that school board members and district leaders received kickbacks from GCA Services Group, which until recently had a district contract for janitorial services.

Paul Lancaster Adams, a nationally recognized labor and employment lawyer based in Philadelphia with Ogletree Deakins —allegations of improper sexual advances and racial discrimination.

an intervention

Struggling Aurora elementary school gets creative to improve — but bigger changes may be coming

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When a fifth-grade boy was having trouble waking up in the morning and getting to school on time, officials at his Aurora school, just a block away, came up with an idea.

They gave the student a buddy — another fifth grader who lives two doors down. The boy agreed to knock on his classmate’s door every morning so the two could walk to school together.

“We had to get creative,” said Shannon Blackard, the interim principal of Paris Elementary. “He became more motivated to get to school on time.”

That buddy system is part of a broader push that has led to better attendance at the school — one emphasis to boost student achievement under a district improvement plan already in place. But bigger changes may soon be coming to Paris Elementary.

The 363-student school has logged five straight years of low performance, triggering the next step in Aurora Public Schools’ system for intervening in low-performing schools. District officials this fall put out a “request for information” from interested parties — which could include charter schools and consultants — seeking ideas for more aggressive steps for improvement.

After this week’s deadline to respond passes, the district will review the responses and ask the school board to vote on recommendations as soon as next month. It will be one of the first significant decisions for the seven-member board since four teachers-union backed candidates won election last month. Those new members have questioned some of the district’s reform efforts.

Superintendent Rico Munn created the district’s framework for intervening in low-performing schools after taking over the role in 2013.

Paris Elementary is not the first school to reach five years of low performance, but it stands apart because it is already under a district-approved innovation plan. That plan gave the school more flexibility in budgeting and setting the school calendar, and in making hiring decisions.

Speaking at a September school board meeting about schools facing turnaround, Munn characterized the recommendation for Paris Elementary as “the most high-profile.”

The district essentially is trying to step in before the state forces its hand.

On its fifth year of priority improvement, one of the lowest ratings the state gives, Paris is one year away from being on the list of schools requiring state action if it doesn’t improve. This year, the state did assign more points to the school in the ratings compared to last year, but not enough for the school to jump up into a higher category of ratings.

The school is a block away from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is surrounded by apartments and multi-family housing. Every one of the students who attends the school qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of every 10 are learning English as a second language. The students come from 16 different countries.

The school’s principal left the role at the beginning of the school year, leaving a district official to step in for a while before an assistant principal was named interim principal for the year.

School officials at Paris, including Blackard, the interim principal, are optimistic that current work at the school is already helping.

For instance, school-level data shows that the number of students reading at grade level this December has more than doubled school-wide compared to the same time last year. The improvements are at every grade level except kindergarten. And for the students that aren’t on grade level, school teams are now meeting regularly to come up with plans for how to help each one catch up.

Improvements are showing in math classrooms, too. Using a new math curriculum, third grade students in one classroom were excitedly engaged last week in an activity to see if they could guess how much a bag of crackers weighed and if they could use the scale to test it.

Early indications for attendance are also positive. The number of students who are chronically absent has dropped by 50 percent. This year so far, 11 percent of students are labeled chronically absent, down from 22.1 percent last year.

Blackard said she isn’t aware of the district’s plans to recommend possible changes to Paris, but said that she expects the school is on track to make improvements anyway.

“I’m very confident,” Blackard said. “We are very focused.”

When Munn discussed the timeline for district recommendations with the school board in September, he described a balancing act between giving schools time to make improvements while stepping in early enough to roll out changes in time when necessary.

“The question is how do we respond, so that we both don’t over-act but don’t react too late,” Munn said.

The district’s framework for dealing with low-performing schools prompts the district to intervene in schools that earn the lowest quality ratings by the state, increasing the level of intervention by the number of years on the clock. Here’s how it works:

When Paris had reached three years of low performance, part of the district’s plan called for the school to adopt the innovation plan and join a so-called innovation zone in northwest Aurora. Along with providing the flexibility of innovation status, the zone is meant to give its five schools the chance to work together and learn from each other.

If the school doesn’t improve enough by next year, the state’s options could include suggesting school closure or asking a charter school or outside group to take over.

Aurora officials have said they want to be proactive about improving schools before they are directed to make changes by the state.

Last year only Aurora Central High School was on the state’s watchlist facing state sanctions. In that case, using the same framework for responding to low-performing schools, district officials were already rolling out an innovation plan giving the school flexibility for changes before the state stepped in.

State officials and state board members recognized the district’s initiative and gave the district a chance to continue rolling out the plan to see if it would result in improvements.

In another case when the district was following the same playbook, the district in 2015 recommended converting low-performing Fletcher Community School into a charter school. The district tapped the Denver network Rocky Mountain Prep, which had responded to a request for information.

After the decision, Fletcher showed some improvements in test scores. This year, Fletcher’s quality ratings showed enough improvement to get off the state’s radar, even before the charter has fully taken over the school. Some teachers and union officials point to that as evidence that the district might have acted too soon instead of considering other options and allowing those efforts to show improvement.

“It’s not that you can’t ultimately get to that conclusion, the question is how do you examine it publicly,” said Bruce Wilcox, union president. “We’re not part of the conversation right now.”

model of inclusion

New York City is placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes. But do they actually feel included?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Terell Richards languished at the public middle school in Queens for students with severe disabilities that he attended a few years ago.

It wasn’t just that he found the work so easy he sometimes fell asleep in the back of the classroom, his sister, Kya, said. It was also that he felt so out of place he would sometimes dissolve into tears.

“Just crying and saying how much he just felt like he was in the wrong place and completely lost,” said Kya, who helped her brother, now 19 years old, switch to a private school for students with special needs.

Now, New York City — and districts across the country — have started sending more students like Terell into classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. But while some research has shown students with disabilities can perform better in mixed-ability settings, a crucial concern has been whether the new environment makes students with disabilities actually feel less isolated and out-of-place.

A new first-of-its-kind study based on surveys of more than 250,000 New York City middle-school students between 2007 and 2012 tries to answer that question.

The study comes with some important caveats: The surveys are conducted annually by the education department, meaning they weren’t written by the study’s authors nor did they oversee how they were administered. Also, the survey period ended just as the city was beginning its major push to move most students with disabilities out of separate classrooms.

It finds that middle-school students with disabilities tend to feel welcomed in schools with non-disabled peers, though their experiences vary by their type of disability. But, more surprisingly, special-needs students in separate classes don’t feel more excluded.

The study, which was funded by the Spencer Foundation, is set to appear in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher. Here are three big takeaways:

Students with disabilities generally feel included in mainstream schools.

The study tracks whether students feel included at over 500 traditional schools by looking at how students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers responded to five questions from the city’s annual survey: whether students feel welcome at school, whether students with disabilities are included in school activities, if teachers know students’ names, whether students are bullied, and whether they see harassment.

Generally, students with disabilities reported slightly higher levels of inclusion in school activities than non-disabled students, and feel only marginally less welcomed — though they also reported slightly higher levels of bullying and harassment.

About 60 percent of students with special needs either agreed or strongly agreed that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, about two percentage points higher than non-disabled students. A slightly smaller share of special needs students felt welcomed at school compared to students without disabilities — though 92 percent said they felt welcomed. (The patterns are relatively consistent even when controlling for differences in student characteristics like gender, race, or socioeconomic status.)

Advocates said they were both surprised and encouraged by those findings.

“We do worry that in the hands of an unskilled teacher that kids will not necessarily feel welcomed and they’ll still be separated out and made to feel different” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It’s pretty exciting to me to see that’s not necessarily true.”

Feelings of inclusion vary widely by disability type.

Although students with disabilities generally reported feeling about as included and welcomed as their peers, there are significant differences based on the type of disability a student has.

Those who were classified as having an “emotional disturbance” — often students who have significant behavioral problems — felt among the least included. They were about 4 percentage points less likely to report feeling welcome or included, compared to non-disabled students, and were also more likely to report harassment than students in any other disability category.

“The emotional disturbance kids are the ones who stand out in their classrooms,” said Leanna Stiefel, the study’s lead author and an economics professor at New York University, adding that they may feel less included because their disabilities are more difficult to hide.

But students with “low-incidence” disabilities such as multiple handicaps, autism, or intellectual disabilities reported more positive feelings than any other group. They were about 10 percentage points more likely than non-disabled peers to report that their schools include students with disabilities, and were slightly more likely to report feeling welcomed.

Students who are segregated based on ability don’t necessarily feel excluded.

Surprisingly, it made little difference whether students with disabilities were in “self-contained” classes — essentially classes comprised only of students with disabilities — or were in classrooms that included non-disabled peers: Both groups reported similar feelings of inclusion. (The findings don’t include students in District 75, a separate set of schools that are even less inclusive, since the schools themselves are only for students with disabilities.)

Moroff, the special education advocate, said the finding surprised her and noted it could reflect that students in more segregated settings aren’t necessarily aware of more inclusive models.

“It’s very possible there that there’s a level of interaction they’re not having,” Moroff said, “that they don’t even expect to be taking place.”