table talks

In Memphis, two competing school districts came together to learn how to play nice. It didn’t work.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.

In Memphis, it’s no secret that the city’s two school districts don’t always get along. Just last week, the traditional district, Shelby County Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District, launched in 2012 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, were fighting over rights to students’ contact information.

What’s less well known is an attempt at detente by a kind of intergovernmental marriage counselor — a private consultant brought in behind the scenes to create a better working relationship between the two districts.

The effort, brought to light in emails obtained by Chalkbeat, halted in May when the two sides weren’t able to agree to terms.

The emails paint a picture of conversations with representatives of both districts following more than a year of talks moderated by Phil Vaccaro, a managing director of Parthenon-EY, a Boston-based consulting group. Vaccaro and Parthenon-EY had worked with Shelby County Schools in the past, and his work moderating the discussions was paid for by philanthropists, not taxpayer dollars, according to two sources who declined to be named, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

“We have been spending a lot of time behind the scenes trying to have a better relationship and clear the air with a lot of issues,” SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the meetings.

The heart of the work was a seven-page accord outlining shared “rules of engagement” as well as recommendations for how to move forward — a document that ultimately was not adopted.

The “rules of engagement” touched on a laundry list of contentious issues between Shelby County and the ASD, from the student contact information challenge to abetting accusations of “misinformation” about school performance.

The document also offers suggestions for improving relations going forward. One proposal outlines rules for how and when each side should communicate with each other — often in writing. Another part details an intricate set of agreements, new policies, and shared “toolkits” aimed at smoothing over another communications minefield: the tricky matter of how each district talks to families that they are trying to recruit to attend their schools.

The sides even attempted to work together on the previously contentious process of how the ASD decides which Shelby County schools should be converted to state-run charter schools. In the past, local leaders have protested these decisions, urging parents to choose SCS-run schools instead of ASD-run charter schools. The new “rules of engagement” would have had them talk together about which schools the ASD would take over before the decision was made.

Hopson and ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson confirmed the meetings took place. Both downplayed the collapse of the talks, saying they learned from the process and are moving forward with some points, even though they didn’t commit to the full “rules of engagement” document.

Hopson said he stepped back from the conversations following the state’s decision this summer to overhaul and downsize the ASD’s staff to curb costs. “I think that, given some of the changes and turmoil that the ASD has been going through, we kind of wanted to stand back and see what would happen with the ASD,” he said.  

“We’ll certainly be open to collaboration and discussion [in the future],” he added.

Anderson said the process was helpful, especially in establishing lines of communication between the two districts about decisions that affect each other. “We reached agreement on several key issues that were already implementing together, which I think is good,” she said .

Hopson said the two parties had unofficially moved forward with guidelines about recruiting students. He did not elaborate on what exactly they’d agreed to, but the document outlines ways for the two sides to coordinate their communications with parents in order to avoid what it calls “misinformation.” In a city with too many schools and too few students, recruiting practices have caused squabbles in the past.

“The recruiting guidelines were reasonable,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We could just do them rather than just have a big commercial about it.”

Hopson and Anderson also both pointed to another reason they had no need for a formal memorandum of understanding: Their disagreements over sharing student information, they said, were now a moot point because a new state law, passed this spring, requires local districts to hand over student data to approved charters.    

But it’s that very law that has the state and the Memphis school district back in the boxing ring. Charter operators and state officials say the contact information is guaranteed to them by the state law. Shelby County board members insist that handing it over would violate federal student privacy laws.

Vaccaro declined to comment on his work in Memphis.

Chalkbeat could not confirm which philanthropists supported Vaccaro’s work. One email obtained by Chalkbeat said that one meeting between SCS and ASD officials was held at the office of the Hyde Family Foundations. A Hyde official declined to elaborate. (The Hyde foundation is one of Chalkbeat’s funders. You can see the full list of our supporters here.)

You can review the full memo and proposed “rules of engagement” below.

hurdle cleared

Indiana’s federally required education plan wins approval

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Education
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick greets elementary school students in Decatur Township.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signed off on Indiana’s federally required education plan, ushering in another era of changes — although not exactly major ones — to the state’s public school system.

The U.S Department of Education announced the plan’s approval on Friday. Like other states, Indiana went through an extensive process to craft a blueprint to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

“Today is a great day for Indiana,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. “Our ESSA plan reflects the input and perspective of many stakeholders in communities across our state. From the beginning, we set out to build a plan that responded to the needs of Hoosier students. From our clear accountability system to our innovative, locally-driven approach to school improvement, our ESSA plan was designed to support student success.”

The federal government highlighted two aspects of Indiana’s plan. One is a pledge to close achievement gaps separating certain groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, from their peers by 50 percent by 2023.

Another is a staple of other states’ plans, as well: adding new ways for measuring how ready students are for attending college or starting their careers. Indiana education officials and lawmakers have made this a priority over the past several years, culminating in a new set of graduation requirements the Indiana State Board of Education approved late last year.

Under Indiana’s plan, high schoolers’ readiness will be measured not just by tests but also by performance in advanced courses and earning dual credits or industry certifications. Elementary school students will be measured in part by student attendance and growth in student attendance over time. Test scores and test score improvement still play a major role in how all schools are rated using state A-F letter grades.

In all, 35 states’ ESSA plans have won federal approval.

Advocates hope the law will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

Indiana officials struggled to bring some state measures in line with federal laws, such as graduation requirements and diplomas.

Under the state’s ESSA plan, A-F grades would include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and, in the case of chronic absenteeism, attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

Because the Indiana State Board of Education passed its own draft A-F rules earlier this month — rules that deviate from the state ESSA plan — it’s possible Hoosier schools could get two sets of letter grades going forward, muddying the initial intent of the simple A-F grade concept parents and community members are familiar with.

The state board’s A-F changes include other measures, such as a “well-rounded” measure for elementary schools that is calculated based on science and social studies tests and an “on-track” measure for high schools that is calculated based on credits and freshman-year grades. Neither component is part of  the state’s federal plan. The state board plan also gets rid of the test score improvement measure for high-schoolers.

While that A-F proposal is preliminary, if approved it would go into effect for schools in 2018-19.

The state can still make changes to its ESSA plan, and the state board’s A-F draft is also expected to see revisions after public comment. But the fact that they conflict now could create difficulties moving forward, and it has led to tension during state board meetings. Already, the state expected schools would see two years of A-F grades in 2018. If both plans move forward as is, that could continue beyond next year.

Read: Will Indiana go through with a ‘confusing’ plan that could mean every school winds up with two A-F grades?

Find more of our coverage of the Every Student Succeeds Act here.


Aurora recommends interventions in one elementary school, while another gets more time

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Aurora school district officials on Tuesday will recommend turning over management of some operations at one of their elementary schools to an outside management company.

The school, Lyn Knoll Elementary, is located in northwest Aurora near 2nd Avenue and Peoria Street and serves a high number of students from low-income families, with 4 percent of students identified as homeless. The school was one of three Aurora schools that earned the lowest rating from the state in 2017.

That rating automatically flags the school under a district process for school interventions. The process directs district officials to consider a number of possible improvement plans, including closure or turning the school over to a charter school.

Lyn Knoll has had good rankings in recent years before slipping dramatically in the past year, a change that put it on the turnaround list. The district did not recommend intervening at Paris Elementary, even though that school has been in priority improvement for years and will face state sanctions if it has one more year without improvement.

Annual ratings for Lyn Knoll Elementary

  • 2010: Improvement
  • 2011: Improvement
  • 2012: Performance
  • 2013: Improvement
  • 2014: Priority Improvement
  • 2016: Performance
  • 2017: Turnaround
Colorado Department of Education

The board will discuss the recommendation on Tuesday and vote on the school’s fate next month. In November, four union-backed board members who have been critical of charter schools won a majority role on the district’s school board. This will be their first major decision since taking a seat on the board.

In September, Superintendent Rico Munn had told the school board that among January’s school improvement recommendations, the one for Paris would be “the most high-profile.” A month later the district put out a request for information, seeking ideas to improve Aurora schools.

But in a board presentation released Friday, district officials didn’t give much attention to Paris. Instead, they will let Paris continue its rollout of an innovation plan approved two years ago. Officials have said they are hopeful the school will show improvements.

The recommendation for Lyn Knoll represents more drastic change, and it’s the only one that would require a board vote.

The district recommendation calls for replacing the current principal, drafting a contract for an outside company to help staff with training and instruction, and creating a plan to help recruit more students to the school.

Documents show district officials considered closing Lyn Knoll because it already has low and decreasing enrollment with just 238 current students. Those same documents note that while officials are concerned about the school’s trends, it has not had a long history of low ratings to warrant a closure.

In considering a charter school conversion, documents state that there is already a saturation of charter schools in that part of the city, and the community is interested in “the existence of a neighborhood school.” Two charter networks, however, did indicate interest in managing the school, the documents state.
The district recommendation would also include stripping the school’s current status as a pilot school.

Lyn Knoll and other schools labeled pilot schools in Aurora get some internal district autonomy under a program created more than 10 years ago by district and union officials.

Because Lyn Knoll is a pilot school, a committee that oversees that program also reviewed the school and made its own recommendation, which is different from the district’s.

In their report, committee members explained that while they gave the school low marks, they want the school to maintain pilot status for another year as long as it follows guidance on how to improve.

Among the observations in the committee’s report: The school doesn’t have an intervention program in place for students who need extra help in math, families are not engaged, and there has not been enough training for teachers on the new state standards.

The report also highlights the school’s daily physical education for students and noted that the school’s strength was in the school’s governance model that allowed teachers to feel involved in decision making.

Read the full committee report below.