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.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of 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 and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 32.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic 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 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD 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.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.