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.


Double whammy: Indiana schools could see two A-F grades in 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on an assignment at Decatur Central High School. (File Photo)

Indiana schools could get two A-F grades in 2018 — one official grade based on state requirements, and a separate calculation based on the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The proposal comes as changes in graduation rate calculations and dual credit teacher training have complicated the state’s plan to comply with the new law, which went into effect this school year.

There was an opportunity to make adjustments when the plan was introduced in June, but Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana education officials endorsed it with few major changes. It’s unclear why separate state and federal grades weren’t considered earlier.

The proposal highlights the pressure Indiana and other states face to quickly adjust to ESSA and changing expectations from Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education. A number of regulations were either thrown out when she came into office or could not be finished in time by the Obama Administration. Indiana, too, saw a dramatic election that brought in a new schools chief, governor and other key education policymakers.

The idea to create dual standards was revealed tonight when Ken Folks, chief of governmental affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, spoke with educators and community members at Noblesville East Middle School.

Adam Baker, state department of education spokesman, said officials need more time to figure out how to meet the federal rules for graduation rate and new regional rules regarding dual credit teaching. Both factor heavily into high school A-F grades, and the changes could result in lower grades for many schools.

“We are trying to support schools and trying to do what’s best to make this transition a lot smoother,” Baker said.

Read: Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

Here’s how it might look:

About a year from now, after students take the spring 2018 ISTEP test, schools will get a letter grade from the state that won’t encompass any of the changes proposed in Indiana’s ESSA plan.

The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention — public schools, for example, can only have four consecutive years of F grades before takeover or other serious improvement plans are on the table.

But nothing about the ESSA rules will change or pause. Unlike in 2016, federal officials have no plans to give states a reprieve from accountability sanctions. Every school will still receive a percentage calculation based on federal guidelines using the same 100-point scale that state letter grades are based on, where 90 percent is an A, 80 is percent a B, and so on.

The federal calculation would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding. For example, any high school where the four-year federal graduation rate is lower than 67 percent would be considered under “comprehensive support” from the state.

Conversations around the specifics of the the state/federal split are still happening, Baker said, and the dual system would only be for 2018.

Grades based on 2017 ISTEP tests that are set to come out next month, which schools have already seen, are not part of this change.

This idea was floated a month ago at a state board of education work session that was held to build consensus around the state’s ESSA plan. Board members asked state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and her staff why there couldn’t just be two grades next year.

At the time, Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, McCormick’s chief of staff, told board members that in the past, Indiana did operate two accountability systems, one for state and one for federal.

“The reason Indiana moved from two accountability systems to one was because it was confusing and caused chaos,” she said. “We would have schools that could look very different in the two systems.”

But as the ESSA plan’s due date rapidly approached and diploma and dual credit situations remained in limbo, Baker said the department changed its mind. Keeping the state’s grading system consistent, even if it meant a separate federal piece, ended up making more sense than a series of state grades with big fluctuations.

“The extra time wasn’t like, ‘OK, let’s give ourselves a fifth quarter,” Baker said. “It was more or less like, this is coming down the pipeline — what can we do? Our hope is that things will change.”

See all of Chalkbeat Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.

the race is on

Stand for Children chooses not to endorse in northeast Denver school board race

DENVER, CO - March 16: A Denver Public Schools emblem and sign on the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus that houses five separate schools with 1,600 students in Pre-K through 12th grade in Northeast Denver, Colorado on March 16, 2016. (Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post)

Stand for Children Colorado on Tuesday announced its candidate endorsements for this fall’s Denver school board races — and one notable non-endorsement.

The pro-education reform group chose not to endorse a candidate in the three-person race in District 4, which encompasses a diverse mix of northeast Denver neighborhoods. The group said both incumbent Rachele Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed the group’s “threshold for endorsement,” and that “Denver’s kids would be well served by either candidate.”  

Recent Manual High School graduate Tay Anderson is also vying for the seat.

With four of seven seats in play, this fall’s election could swing the balance of a school board that unanimously backs the school district’s education reform efforts.

Stand is a significant player in Denver school board elections. It donates money to candidates and helps marshal resources on the ground, including door-to-door canvassing.

Kate Dando Doran, a spokeswoman for Stand for Children Colorado, said in an email the group will not contribute financially to candidates in District 4. She said that families Stand works with in southwest Denver are supporting former teacher Angela Cobián’s campaign in that part of the city, and that Stand would focus its energy and resources there, too.  

Cobián has the support of incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who is not running again. Stand endorsed Cobián in her race against parent Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who has teachers union backing.

Stand for Children’s other endorsements do not come as a surprise: incumbent Barbara O’Brien in the citywide at-large race that includes former Denver teacher Julie Bañuelos and parent Robert Speth; and incumbent Mike Johnson for District 3 in central-east Denver, who is facing English language development teacher Carrie A. Olson.

To be considered for Stand’s endorsement, candidates agree to answer a candidate questionnaire and to be interviewed by a committee of parents. Doran said O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson, Bacon and Espiritu went through the group’s process.

That Stand could not settle on an endorsement in District 4 adds to the drama in the three-person race. Opponents of the district’s reforms haven’t united on a pick, either. The Denver teachers union endorsed Bacon, a community organizer and former teacher. The advocacy group Our Denver, Our Schools and a progressive caucus of the teachers union are backing Anderson.