Consolation prize

Crosstown High wins $2.5 million to help reinvent high school in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Newly named leaders Chandra Sledge Mathias and Chris Terrill are working to launch Crosstown High School, a charter school that will open in the fall of 2018 in midtown Memphis.

A charter school opening next year in midtown Memphis has been awarded a $2.5 million grant through a national contest aimed at reinventing America’s high schools.

Leaders of Crosstown High announced Wednesday that it’s receiving the money over five years from the XQ Super School Challenge, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The upcoming school garnered national attention last year as a finalist for one of five $10 million XQ awards. Although Crosstown didn’t win, its leaders say the new award will help keep the school on the map of America’s “schools of the future.” (Crosstown is among 18 schools being featured on a live national broadcast on network television on Sept. 8.)

“This hasn’t been attempted in Memphis,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High, about creating a high school of tomorrow from scratch. “There’s energy nationwide for education reform, and we get to be a part of that.”

The new Memphis school will look different from a traditional high school. No classrooms arranged with rows of desks. No high-stakes tests. No failing grades. It will join a growing group of other U.S. schools grounded in mastery-based learning, which emphasizes student-led projects over teacher lectures.

Authorized last year by Shelby County Schools, Crosstown High will open in 2018 with 125 ninth-grade students, eventually growing to 500 across four grades. The students will be chosen through a random lottery that opens in September.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crosstown Concourse has room for more than just the 500-student high school.

The school will be housed on several floors at Crosstown Concourse, a redeveloped high-rise building that once was a Sears warehouse. The building opened this spring as an urban village and already is home to several nonprofit organizations, community health initiatives and creative arts groups, with whom the school is seeking to leverage partnerships.

“Inside the concourse, there are thousands of different job titles,” said Terrill, whose family has moved into an apartment in the complex. “We’ll be able to listen to what students are interested in and then pair them with places that match those interests.”

Terrill arrived at Crosstown this summer from Mooresville, N.C., where he was head of a charter school. He’s being joined by another charter leader from Warrenton, N.C., Chandra Sledge Mathias, who will serve as Crosstown’s first principal.

Much of the $2.5 million award will go toward professional development, says Sledge Mathias.

“We have lofty ideas, but making it happen in real life is what we need to make happen,” she said. “That starts with teachers who understand what we’re trying to do here, which is going to be very different than the classrooms they’re coming from.”

The school invites the community to stop by Crosstown Concourse on Thursday for a block party celebration featuring the XQ Super School Bus, which visited Memphis last summer as part of the national competition. The event will be an opportunity for Memphians to weigh in on what they want to see at Crosstown High, said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“Being a super school means questioning everything,” Spickler said. “We have a mandate to try to do things differently. We want community input as we continue to figure out what different looks like.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.