BACK-TO-SCHOOL LIST

Memphis students are back in school. Here are seven things to know about the upcoming year.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Students likely saw some new faces as they returned to Memphis schools this week. But their families should be aware that many other changes are at play across Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Here are just a few:

1. Schools are working toward a new approach to discipline.

Restorative justice techniques are being ushered in to encourage “talking it out” and addressing the root causes of disciplinary problems — rather than defaulting to exclusionary practices such as expulsions and suspensions. The latter approach steals valuable instructional time and also disproportionately skews against boys of color. With some of the highest suspension rates in Tennessee, Shelby County Schools has been training teachers on the disciplinary shift and hired more behavior specialists and school counselors for the new school year.

2. Teachers are moving to a new pay structure that rewards performance.

If your child has an effective teacher, the district is working to retain and reward that teacher through a new system of merit pay. Teachers will receive raises if they earn top evaluation scores, which usually are tied both to student test scores and classroom evaluations. (The new system also will address some inequities in a pay structure that has given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience.)

3. With more new charter schools opening, the sector is a growing force in Memphis education.

Six charter schools opened Monday under Shelby County Schools, whose charter sector now comprises a fourth of the district’s 192 schools. New to the scene are Gateway University Schools of Applied Sciences Inc., Legacy Leadership Academy, Kaleidoscope Schools, Southwest Early College High School, and new campuses for Freedom Preparatory Academy and Memphis School of Excellence. Memphis is also getting its first charter school under the Tennessee State Board of Education, which last year sided with Green Dot Public Schools in its appeal to open Bluff City High School.

4. More than a dozen existing traditional schools are getting a shot in the arm, too.

Instead of just closing the district’s chronically struggling schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson this year budgeted an extra $300,000 per school for strategic investments. The “critical focus schools” are in danger of closing because of some combination of low test scores, low enrollment and high maintenance costs. But now they’re launching improvement plans crafted by principals, teachers and communities with the district’s help. Hopson said the schools have about three years to prove themselves. (Here’s how one Memphis school in Frayser plans to catch up.)

5. High school students who are new to the U.S. will have an intense new program to help them learn English.

In a school-within-a-school at Wooddale High School, newcomers will build their language skills as part of core classes in math, science, history and language arts and join the rest of the school for elective classes. The two-year program is in response to a fast-growing segment of English language learners that now makes up 8 percent of the district’s student population.

6. One of Memphis’ most iconic schools is being overhauled.

East High School is transitioning to an all-optional school focusing on on transportation careers and science-related job fields, or T-STEM for short. Neighborhood students entering the Midtown school have been zoned elsewhere, while returning East students will get to finish out their high school years there. As of Friday, some parents in the East neighborhood were still figuring out exactly where their students will attend.

7. Everyone is waiting anxiously for last year’s state test scores.

District and school-level high school scores are expected to be released this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, following the release of statewide scores in July. Results for students in grades 3-8 are due out this fall. Under Tennessee’s new TNReady test, the scores are important because they are used to judge the effectiveness of Tennessee teachers and schools.

First Person

Mayor de Blasio’s schools-chief search is shrouded in secrecy — but it doesn’t have to be

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor, he promised to let the public weigh in on his picks for New York City’s schools chief before appointing them.

“We need a chancellor who is presented to the public, not just forced down our throat,” he said on the campaign trail in 2012.

But he changed his tune after being elected, and has decided to keep the chancellor search private. On Tuesday, parents and advocates will hold a rally to demand that de Blasio give them a say in his current search to replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

If the mayor did open the search to the public, what might it look like?

One option is what seems to be occurring by default: names thrown about largely in the dark, handicapped based on race, gender, and reputation. This messy debate creates more heat than light and advantages those with inside information over ordinary citizens. Hardly the public process advocates have in mind.

But there are other ways. Public superintendent searches are routine for most school districts run by elected school boards. While state law gives New York City’s mayor the authority to single-handedly appoint the chancellor, de Blasio could voluntarily borrow from districts with more open processes.

In those districts, community consensus is usually reached on a job description with desired qualifications. The post is widely advertised, often by a specialized superintendent search firm that conducts an initial review of confidential applications. A list of qualified candidates is presented to the Board of Education, which further culls the still-private list to arrive at three to five finalists.

After the candidates are given a chance to inform their current employers, they are publicly announced and interviews scheduled. In the ensuing weeks, the public and press explore finalists’ records. Members of the screening committee may even visit their home districts. Candidate interviews are often televised or streamed online. The position is then offered after a period of post-interview public comment and board deliberation.

The process can be bumpy, but it gets done. Public confidence is established through participation and a full vetting of the candidates. And because the process is common in most places, the finalists expect this type of scrutiny — they can even use it as an opportunity to renegotiate their contracts by threatening to leave for greener pastures.

So how could de Blasio adapt some of those practices for New York?

One idea is to appoint an independent panel that could submit a list of finalists for the mayor to choose from. The panel could consist of students, parents, educators, and community members, or perhaps each of the five borough presidents.

Another idea is to let the city council weigh in on the candidates. The mayor could nominate his pick for chancellor, who would then face the council’s education committee for questioning before the full council votes on the appointment — just as happens with the president’s cabinet nominations.

It is not too late to institute any of these proposals for a public search.

A thoughtful, transparent process would be a win-win for the mayor, enhancing his progressive credentials while allowing him to remain in the driver’s seat. A public search would also be a win for the city and the next chancellor, who would arrive with more of a popular mandate than if she or he was vetted and hired behind closed doors.

We only have to look back a few years, to the lamentable appointment of Cathie Black, to understand how a unilateral appointment can quickly go off the rails. A public process makes sense, and the moment is now.

David C. Bloomfield is professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

Opening doors

What other schools can learn from two Colorado Schools of Opportunity

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
South High students Lionel Kulembwa, Eliana Goldberg, Zahra Abdulameer and Shambel Zeru pose for a portrait.

Two Colorado high schools are among eight in the nation recognized as Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

Schools of Opportunity are institutions that go above and beyond to help all their students succeed. Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and a professor at CU’s School of Education, said the program is designed to counter the “Best High Schools in America” rankings from U.S. News & World Report and similar lists.

“At the top of these rankings, year after year, we see two types of schools: schools in high-income communities and choice schools that enroll high-scoring students,”  he said. “The best way to have high test scores is to have high-scoring students, but these schools don’t necessarily employ exemplars of best practices.”

Socioeconomic factors outside of school continue to play a strong role in how well students do in school. Schools of Opportunity use methods and strategies that should close some of that gap, even if it doesn’t show up in test scores, Welner said.

“A lot of things that schools do won’t show up in test scores right away, but they’ll show up in other things, like more students showing up to school, and in life beyond school, what the student takes with him or her,” Welner said.

Denver’s South High School received a gold rating, with reviewers making note of heritage classes in Arabic and Spanish that help students achieve literacy in their first language as well as English. The school also received praise for a peer-mentoring program that has significantly increased the number of students of color taking Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

“The first thing you have to start with is your mindset,” South Principal Jen Hanson said. “It’s very important that people in the building see diversity as an asset.”

Hanson said teachers and administrators focus on the assets students already have, rather than what they lack, and build from there.

Aurora’s William C. Hinkley High School received a silver designation. A restorative justice program there has transformed the school culture, according to students interviewed by the committee that made the awards. It’s part of an overall “culture of care” that includes teacher training that focuses on collaboration and building relationships.

Principal Matthew Willis said all these efforts go toward “helping students access a better life.” Disciplinary referrals are way down, and graduation rates are way up at a school that serves a lot of students from low-income families. The school has one of the highest rates of concurrent enrollment – high school students taking college courses – in the state.

Welner said he hopes other schools serving students from low-income families, students of color, and students who are learning English will read through the applications and find ideas that can work at their school. He’s also used these ideas to help the Office of Civil Rights come up with remedies when schools are found to violate their students’ civil rights.

South High School

Student body: 1,605
Students of Color: 67 percent
English Language Learners: 42.9 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 58.7 percent

Almost 70 percent of South students are students of color, but in the 2015-16 school year, just 73 students of color enrolled in AP classes. Hanson said administrators knew something must be wrong. A student group called “Rising Rebels” was enlisted to recruit their peers to sign up for AP and college-level classes. Teachers also reached out to students and their parents to encourage them to sign up. This school year, 423 students of color are signed up for AP courses, and the school has a tutoring program to make sure those who need extra help get it.

“If you grow up with a parent in your ear saying you’re going to college and you’re going to take that class, that’s great, but if you don’t have that parent, it’s our obligation to provide that,” Hanson said.

Denver Public Schools as a whole is pushing to get more students into advanced classes, with some success, but students of color are still underrepresented.

South has a large refugee population representing students from more than 50 countries, many of whom have had their schooling interrupted. South is a designated Newcomer Center, and soon all of its teachers will be certified to teach English Language Learners.

Hanson said sending the right message from the top is important, as is teacher training, but administrators also need to look closely at the structures and systems at their schools, at discipline and schedules. Do these structures support equity or do they give an advantage to some students while discouraging others?

Hinkley High School

Student body: 2,184
Students of color: 91.9 percent
English Language Learners: 29.7 percent
Free and Reduced Lunch: 75.2 percent

Willis said the restorative justice program is just one component of a larger “culture of care,” but it’s the oldest and perhaps foundational piece.

“Many referrals can be boiled down to relational problems between two individuals that can be solved with facilitation,” he said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Kennon Baldwin, a Hinkley High School senior, works on an online course during night school.

The school also arranges schedules so that teachers who work in the same subject area can meet and share ideas. A first-year teacher can share recent research, while a veteran teacher might know the signs that a student needs help. Topics for teacher training are chosen with student needs in mind, Willis said. Right now, many Hinkley teachers are giving up a planning period to work on ideas to better serve students with disabilities.

When students stay in class and when teachers work hard to understand their students, a lot can happen, Willis said. It’s taken years to get here, and Willis said any school leaders who want to make big changes also need patience.

“There isn’t a magic pill or silver bullet,” he said. “When we talk about the culture of care, cultural transformation takes time. Each year, this philosophy coalesces more. We work together as a staff to see how we can take that next step. We’re never completely satisfied, and I think that’s why you see this continual progress toward improving our school.”

“There are many ways to improve a school, but sticking with one approach long enough to actually see the fruits of our labor is really important,” he added.

You can see the full list of winners and read more about them here

Nominations are being accepted for the next round, and organizers said they’d particularly like to see more nominations from rural schools.