Digging in

Tennessee’s two largest districts defy state order to share student info with charters

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The board of education for Shelby County Schools convenes in Memphis.

Elected school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are digging in their heels against a state order to release public information about their students to state-run charter schools.

Shelby County’s school board agreed Tuesday night to defy the order, a day after the chairwoman of Nashville’s school board sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen indicating that her district would do the same.

Meanwhile, McQueen said she would request the state attorney general’s opinion on the matter.

At issue is student directory information, including names, phone numbers, addresses and emails. Charter operators say they have a right to the lists under the state’s new charter school law, but local districts don’t want to share the information so they can retain their students.

Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information.

In her letter to McQueen, Anna Shepherd said Nashville’s board has no problem with sharing information for students already enrolled in state-run charter schools. She took issue, however, with operators who use the information to recruit students now zoned to the district’s low-performing schools.

Shelby County leaders concurred, saying that using student information for recruitment goes against the intent of the state law. The Memphis board also authorized its legal team to submit its argument in writing if Nashville’s board opts to file a lawsuit over the issue.

Both boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers were asking questions about the charter school bill as it made its way through the legislature. Rep. John Forgety of Athens said the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool,” and Chuck Cagle, an attorney for the state’s superintendents group, agreed. No one disputed their statements.

However, the final bill that passed excluded language that prohibits using the information to market to students, even as the law prohibits charter schools from sharing the information with anyone else.

Several lawmakers are now siding with the school boards. Earlier Tuesday, McQueen spoke with six Nashville-area legislators in a conference call organized by Rep. John Clemmons. He said later that McQueen held steady on her stance. He also expressed hope that she will not withhold funding from districts for their positions.

Nashville’s board voted last week to withhold student directory information after McQueen ordered Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to share the lists with state-run schools in Memphis. Nashville Superintendent Shawn Joseph also received a copy of McQueen’s order.

Hopson’s administration has cited federal student privacy laws for its decision to withhold the information.

Shepherd’s letter on Monday cited an untested federal rule that allows school districts to limit who can obtain student directory information and why. That rule, amended in 2011, contradicts public record laws but has yet to be challenged in court, said Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida.

“The way state open-records laws work is, either a record is confidential under federal law or it isn’t,” said LoMonte.

Below is the resolution from Shelby County Schools and Shepherd’s letter to McQueen.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: