Movers & shakers

Why the new director of KIPP Memphis calls the city’s charter landscape ‘beautiful and elegant’

PHOTO: KIPP
Kendra Ferguson became executive director of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools in February, after spending most of her career with KIPP Bay Area Schools in California.

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools is welcoming its third leader in three years, and at a time when the seven-school charter network could use a boost.

Kendra Ferguson became executive director in December, after spending most of her career with KIPP, and most recently KIPP Bay Area Schools in California. She replaces Kelly Wright, who had the job for two years.

With a presence in Memphis since 2002, KIPP now operates four charter schools through Shelby County Schools and three under the state-run Achievement School District.

Ferguson took the helm at an especially challenging time. The nonprofit network was preparing to close its first Memphis school due to low enrollment. And its student achievement is also under a microscope. While KIPP schools fared generally well nationwide in a new high-profile study out of Stanford University, its Memphis schools did not. KIPP Memphis was among only two KIPP networks that appeared to have negative academic growth.

Ferguson sat down recently with Chalkbeat to talk about the challenges, with an eye toward bolstering academics and student retention. This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity.

The latest study from CREDO, a Stanford-based research group, shows negative results in math and reading for KIPP Memphis students. What are your immediate and long-term plans to raise the academic bar?

The CREDO study cites data from 2014-15. KIPP Memphis has already begun making adjustments to better support our schools. For example, we shifted to Common Core-aligned curriculum (Wheatley and Eureka) and continue to provide training and support across our schools. At one school, we moved to a co-leader model to provide additional leadership support. With my background in academics, I’m excited to focus our team’s time this year on teaching and learning, which is our top priority. Our intensive professional development work this summer will tap into instructional coaching support from the KIPP School Leadership Programs. We are also excited to have a director of teaching and learning to lead work throughout the year. We are optimistic about what’s ahead.

You’ve been with KIPP since 2002. Tell us about your most recent role, and why you’re coming to Memphis.

I was the chief of schools for KIPP Bay Area Schools and then most recently the chief people officer, where I focused on all areas of talent: development, recruitment, leadership pipeline, determining excellence in teachers — whatever helps you grow in your craft. I’m bringing all of that experience with me as I think about our teacher development and pipelines here.

Knowing that supporting new to KIPP teachers so that students hit the ground running, we developed a new teacher onboarding that included specific teacher moves and best practices in socio-emotional learning.

I’ve been a KIPPster forever, and I’ve worked before with several KIPPsters in Memphis through the KIPP network training and partnership across regions. I came for a visit and loved the city. It’s unique to see so many agencies around education. Instead of me chasing people to say, “Will you care about education?” there’s so many people already caring here. There’s Memphis Teacher Residency, anything under the Memphis Education Fund umbrella, TFA, City Year … everyone’s trying to be in a coalition together because of the need and love for the city.

What are your immediate priorities?

Academic attainment. It’s hard to get a good picture of where we are with the state test malfunction last year. But even looking at some of the scores in our K-12 grades, there’s work to be done.

We have a 100 percent graduation rate, but that’s not where it ends. Last year, 83 percent of our students went on to a two- or four-year college. Our estimated college completion rate is at about 42 percent. …That’s more (than the local school district), but not enough. (For comparison, Shelby County Schools has a 79 percent graduation rate and a 63 college matriculation rate during the 2015-16 year).

We’re also relatively new to the elementary school arena, so I’m looking there to what we can do to be stronger.

Another piece I’m thinking about is: What does it mean to be a KIPPster? What’s our brand, our identity? What do people see us as? We have a real opportunity here to define who we are. To me, what’s important and what I hope we’re known for is loving kids, learning our data and practicing excellence.

Maintaining or growing enrollment has been a challenge for many Memphis schools, and KIPP hasn’t been an exception. How are you addressing that?

At the end of each school year, we have folks spending more time looking at who’s a flight risk and why they’re thinking of leaving. Is there assistance we can provide? Is there a transportation issue? … What is it that’s causing folks to want to leave?

We’re also pushing re-enrollment as part of our end-of-year activities. We had a field day where parents had the opportunity to re-enroll. We had a Parents Summit, where we asked people to come in from the community — vendors like Memphis Lift, a local dance academy, camp options and health options. We also had principals there with information on enrollment and reenrollment. We’re being more aggressive.

I don’t actually know all the answers, but I’m looking to parents and teachers to help us fill the gaps. We do a parent survey at all KIPP schools at the end of the year, and I expect those to be helpful.

I’m also wondering about how the city is developing. When I first came, I heard a lot about apartments being demolished or renovated that could affect our kids. … (I wondered) are we connected with community leaders to better understand the urban planning that’s going on? Someone’s planning something to support our neighborhoods? I would love to be on front part of that.

Memphis parents are used to seeing educational leaders come and go. Given the turnover of KIPP’s leadership here, how will you build trust in the communities that KIPP is in?

Trust takes time to build when people don’t know you. I think the best thing I can do is just be me.

In our north Memphis community, I’ve definitely heard people asking, “Will she stay?” I understand that and know it’s not personal. That has nothing to do with Dr. Kendra Ferguson. It has to do with a history of people coming and going, coming and going. That’s the cycle, too, in other communities like New York or the Bay Area. But here, people want to know and be known. It’s much more familial. And for me, part of that trust-building is learning the city. In going to the Civil Rights Museum and thinking about all the history that’s occurred in Memphis, it’s important for me to know that history informs the city.

We’ve talked about students, but KIPP also has to retain teachers. Last year, 66 percent of teachers stayed within KIPP schools, compared to 73 percent nationally. What’s your plan there?

Excellence in teaching is the be all and end all. I really want to focus on teacher coaching. Every teacher wants to be observed. Everyone wants to be successful and get to the next level. This summer, our educational leaders will spend a week at an instructional bootcamp at the University of Chicago. They’ll be learning how to support and give teachers feedback.

I also think we need to define excellence in teaching. We can’t take for granted that people just know what it means to be a great teacher. There are measures out there that define excellence. I’m looking at Danielson or the New Teach Project rubric. It’s helpful to determine a way to measure our teachers so we’re all talking about the same thing. It’s also important for parents to understand what we’re talking about when we say this person is a great teacher.

Coming from the Bay Area, which is an innovation capital, you’ve got Google, Facebook and just about every startup you think. You can throw a stone and hit a startup. When I came here, I found a group coming together that wants to do things, that wants to innovate. Our teachers can benefit from this culture. How do they want to innovate in their classrooms? What ideas do they have? I want this to be an open environment where teachers can really pitch ideas.

KIPP Memphis has schools authorized by both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. How will you balance your work with two districts?

In the Bay Area, we had 11 schools under seven different authorizers. Here, I have seven schools under only two authorizers. To have just two authorizers, that seems absolutely beautiful and elegant, and much more of a plus than a minus.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences we have to think about with the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools, For what I’ve experienced so far, the ASD provides more hands-on support, while Shelby County is more in a more traditional authorizer role.

I believe everyone here when they say that they want what’s best for students. I hear that when I talk to either Brad Leon with Shelby County Schools or Malika Anderson with the Achievement School District. It seems very consistent.

measuring up

After five years, the Tennessee-run district isn’t performing any better than low-performing schools receiving no intervention, research says

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

After five years of trying to turn around low-performing schools, Tennessee’s state-run schools aren’t performing any better than schools that haven’t received any intervention, according to new research released Tuesday.

But locally controlled low-achieving districts called Innovation Zones have not only improved performance — as shown in other studies —  but have sustained those improvements over five years.

That time period is seen as a significant marker because previous research has found it can take up to five years to see improvement from school interventions. Both the state-run district and the local iZones were launched 6 years ago.

Tennessee is seen as a leader in turnaround work around the nation. The state-run district began taking over schools in 2012, saying it would vault 5 percent of the state’s lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools in Memphis and Nashville, and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around.

But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students, retain high-quality teachers, and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 30.

The study compared Tennessee’s state-run district with other low-performing schools statewide and found that average test scores in reading, math, and science “before and after the reform is no different from the difference during the same period for comparison schools.”

“Overall, the ASD schools exhibited similar growth to comparison schools receiving no interventions.”

In a statement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said, “We have not seen the success in the ASD that we want, and that is something we’re addressing.”

We “took the lessons we’ve learned from both the ASD and models like the Shelby County iZone, and it’s provided a framework for a more nuanced approach to how we do school improvement in our state,” she said.

Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the researchers, said the biggest difference between Tennessee’s state-run district and others like it is that the district is “managed by charter organizations but doesn’t act like charter organizations.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
This summer, GRAD Academy Memphis became the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis.

Unlike the Recovery School District in Louisiana, the Tennessee state-run district is required to serve students within its schools’ neighborhoods, Henry said. The Achievement School District sought to maintain neighborhood-based schools, where attendance is based on who is zoned to that school.

“When charter schools are based on choice, they can control entrance and exit in a way a neighborhood school can’t,” Henry said.

For example, some charters only accept students at the beginning of the school year, he said.

“In the ASD, you don’t have that competition or matching in place that may be the elements most crucial to some positive results we’ve seen in the Recovery School District,” he added.

The research brief is based on data collected from 2012 to 2017 including student and teacher demographics and student test scores from state exams and end-of-course exams.

The study is the latest in a series analyzing the state-run schools and iZones, published by researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA.  The research builds off of previous findings: iZone schools are improving students’ reading, math, and science test scores faster than state-run schools and low-achievement schools receiving no extra support.

Innovation zones are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, scheduling and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 24 Memphis schools in its turnaround program

Researchers compared “moderate to large” growth in iZone schools to that of other school intervention models throughout the nation, such as the School Redesign Grants model in Massachusetts and the state takeover in Lawrence Public Schools.

But Henry said that this week’s brief is the first study of its kind nationwide, and that the research comes down strongly in favor of iZone models.

“No studies across the county on turnaround have looked at long-term effects,” Henry said. “Here we see that the positive effects of the iZone are sustained, and therefore the iZone model is an evidence-based practice for school turnaround [nationwide]. If states want to adopt an iZone approach, they have the evidence to support it.”

On the other hand, Henry added, there’s also evidence that the Achievement School District’s original model isn’t producing results.

“The ASD approach of bringing in charter organizations to take over a school is not sufficient on its own to really improve student outcomes,” Henry said. “Other things need to be done in order to improve schools, such as recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders, and reducing chronic absenteeism.”

Seeking to turn its state-run district around, the Tennessee Department of Education recently hired Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the iZone schools in Memphis, to take over as chief of the district.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin started in her new role this month and told Chalkbeat that re-establishing the district’s credibility with the communities it serves is her first goal, as well as fostering collaboration, which she was known for in iZone schools.

The operators of state-run schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition. But the state department is banking on Griffin’s previous success to turn over a new page for the Achievement School District.

“Our ability to improve the lives of our students, as research suggests, depends on support and the ability of the adults within our schools,” Griffin said. “I’m excited for the ASD to work with local districts like Shelby County Schools to bridge the gaps together, to share best practices and professional development so regardless of where a student attends, we are meeting their needs.”

Griffin added that she’s focusing on how to better support and retain high-performing educators and leaders during her first months on the job.

The research alliance will continue to study the possible factors that may be influencing the impacts of the iZone and state-run district. According to its statement, researchers are planning to explore how much possible barriers to improvement such as teacher turnover, chronic absenteeism or principal turnover, have suppressed more positive effects of Tennessee’s turnaround interventions.

You can reach the research brief in full below:

NEXT LEADER

Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.