Still struggling

Long before tragic bus crash, Chattanooga’s Woodmore Elementary offered school turnaround lessons for America

PHOTO: Angela Lewis Foster/Times Free Press
Ma'Liyah Montgomery participates in a candlelight vigil on Nov. 23, 2016, to remember Zoie Nash, one of six elementary school students killed that week in a school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A decade before grabbing national headlines for a tragic bus crash that killed six of its students last fall, Woodmore Elementary was the rare good-news story, a heralded example of successful school turnaround work.

Along with eight other struggling Chattanooga schools, Woodmore was chosen in 2001 as a laboratory for reforms aimed at improving student literacy. Through an initiative funded mostly by a local corporation, innovations included developing teacher-leaders, hiring instructional coaches, creating space for collaboration, and giving principals autonomy over everything from spending to professional development.

For a while, the reforms seemed to be working. Third-grade reading proficiency climbed from 50 to 75 percent by 2005, drawing the attention of then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and garnering profiles in national publications like The Washington Post and Education Week.

But eventually, the initiative’s money ran out, and the schools backslid. When the state released its first list of lowest-performing “priority schools” in 2012, Woodmore and four other neighborhood schools from the so-called Benwood Initiative were on it. Today, they still rank in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, even as federal funding for them increased.

Those five Chattanooga schools exemplify both the promise and challenge of turnaround work — what can happen when the right ideas and resources are in place, but also how quickly improvements can dissipate without sustained focus and support.

The schools now are the focus of state officials who are weary of promises of locally driven improvements, even as a new superintendent with new ideas has arrived on the scene in Tennessee’s fourth largest city. Their future, as well as the future of about 2,300 students, will be decided this fall as state officials prepare to step in with a new turnaround plan, albeit one that they hope will be endorsed and supported by the community.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the five schools — Woodmore, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle, Dalewood Middle and Brainerd High — are in need of urgent interventions.

“Hamilton County has struggled to turn around these five low-performing priority schools, although most of them have been on the district’s radar for at least 15 years,” McQueen said recently. “That means a student at Woodmore Elementary in 2002 could have just graduated from Brainerd High and spent his or her entire K-12 education in schools that have not put them on the track for success.”

Struggling schools in a battered district

PHOTO: Chattanooga Fire Department
Emergency responders work to remove students from Woodmore Elementary School after a bus crashed on Nov. 21, 2016.

Tucked in Tennessee’s southeastern corner, Hamilton County’s school system has been battered in recent years by a relentless tempest. The fallout from a rape involving members of a high school basketball team contributed to the abrupt resignation of Superintendent Rick Smith in early 2016. Woodmore’s fatal crash occurred later in the year when a speeding school bus careened out of control with 37 students aboard, just before Thanksgiving. This year, the district is being challenged by the possible secession of three schools in Signal Mountain, a mostly white and affluent suburb that would take critical funding with it.

All the while, Hamilton County has grappled with underfunding, low test scores, a large percentage of impoverished students, and stark racial and economic segregation.

Community and civic leaders have joined forces in the last year to seek to turn the trajectory of the city’s public schools, initially under the interim leadership of Kirk Kelly and now under a new superintendent, Bryan Johnson.

“Our philosophy was that our kids could not afford for us to wait,” said chief academic officer Jill Levine of the most recent local improvement effort. “Whether we’re in place for a year or five years, we need to start right away.”

Not surprisingly, they turned to some of the strategies that proved successful under the Benwood Initiative.

Turnaround pioneer

The unique initiative kicked off in 2001 in the early days of No Child Left Behind, when the words “school turnaround” first crept into the American vernacular.

Tennessee had just released a statewide list of its lowest-performing schools compiled by an independent researcher, a precursor to its current list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent. The community was horrified that nine of the 20 bottom-scoring schools were in Chattanooga — and serving mostly poor and minority students. In response, the Benwood Foundation, created by the estate of a former president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., donated $5 million in a unique alliance with the school district and Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation, which kicked in another $2.5 million.

Jesse Register was the superintendent at the time of the Hamilton County Department of Education. The future director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, he oversaw a targeted plan to improve instruction at the Benwood schools. In a model similar to Tennessee’s innovation zones of today, all teachers were required to reapply for their jobs in an effort to weed out the least-committed ones. Then-Mayor Bob Corker, a future U.S. senator, created incentives to attract educators, including tuition-free graduate school and mortgage loans and the potential for raises of up to $5,000 if student test scores went up.

Nearly two-thirds of the original teachers were hired back, suggesting that the quality of the teacher workforce was never the problem. They just needed support, like on-the-job coaching, peer collaboration, and more time and help in the classroom. Researchers think Register’s next move was the biggest key to improvement. He greatly increased the number of support staff like instructional coaches.

PHOTO: Hamilton County Department of Education
A teacher works with students at a Chattanooga elementary school.

The goal of the Benwood Initiative was to get all third-graders reading at or above grade-level by 2007. That didn’t happen, but the work was successful enough after five years to launch similar changes at eight more schools.

“The important thing we learned is that turnaround can be done,” said Dan Challener, longtime leader of the Public Education Fund.

But by the time the next $7 million grant ran out in 2012, Tennessee’s public education system looked markedly different than in 2001. The state had switched academic standards twice and was using a more rigorous test to measure student progress. Without a reinfusion of cash and commitment, improvements under the Benwood Initiative fizzled.

Old and new ideas

When Hamilton County leaders set to work reviving their district after Smith’s departure, they drew on several Benwood strategies like supporting teachers through coaching and adding support staff.

They also used federal and philanthropic funding to create literacy labs where teachers could get instruction and feedback, matched new teachers with mentors across the district, and created a “teacher think tank” to drive the district’s professional development programs.

“The idea is that if teachers see good models of teaching, it will improve their practice more than going to a workshop or reading about it,” said Levine, a longtime principal who became chief academic officer in 2016.

School leadership came under a microscope too, with a revamped principal pipeline and a monthly dinner for new principals to share stories and advice.

Hands-on science projects and the arts also have been put back in the curriculum — along with related supplies and teacher training — after being pushed out over the years to accommodate more testing.

Supporting the changes has been Chattanooga 2.0, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, foundations and businesses that are championing learning from early childhood to career technical education. In January, a $1 million gift for middle and high school science labs was announced by Volkswagen, whose auto assembly plant is one of the city’s biggest employers.

In the years since the Benwood Initiative, a growing awareness has emerged in the community that it truly does take a village to turn around long-struggling schools — and to sustain those improvements.

“You don’t want to build a strategy around one person,” said Jared Bigham, who coordinates Chattanooga 2.0. “I think what has made this (latest) movement different is that we have every conceivable group at the table, or at least we’ve invited anyone who wants to engage.”

PHOTO: Doug Strickland/Times Free Press
Bryan Johnson became superintendent of Hamilton County schools in July.

Over the summer, the school board tapped Johnson — the chief academic officer from Clarksville-Montgomery County schools north of Nashville — to be the district’s new superintendent. Working against a ticking clock, he has sought to find common ground between state and local leaders.

McQueen has made it clear that, one way or the other, the state will be involved in next steps. Two options are on the table.

The first is to place the five schools in a “partnership zone,” which would be the first of its kind in Tennessee. The initiative would be governed jointly by local and state officials, with the state having the biggest say. The plan would essentially create a mini-school district that’s freed from local rules to innovate as needed.

“The structure is not the magic bullet, but it creates some autonomy and accountability to move the schools forward,” McQueen said.

The second option is taking over some of the schools — and possibly eventually all of them — through the Achievement School District. The state-run district converts struggling schools into charter schools that are run by nonprofit operators. With schools in Memphis and Nashville, the so-called ASD has been Tennessee’s primary turnaround vehicle since launching in 2012. In Memphis especially, it’s been acknowledged for snapping complacent education leaders into action, even as it’s angered local stakeholders and shown less academic progress than locally led initiatives.

PHOTO: Doug Strickland/Times Free Press
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen addresses Hamilton County’s school board in May.

If the school board rejects the Partnership Zone option, McQueen says the district is essentially choosing to work with the ASD. The state would immediately begin plans to move Hamilton County’s two neediest schools — Orchard Knob Middle and Brainerd High — to the state-run district in the fall of 2018.

But community members are wary of state intervention of any kind. All year, they’ve packed school board meetings hoping for a third way, and Johnson obliged last month with a plan to create an “Opportunity Zone” for 12 struggling schools, including the five priority schools.

But he left open the door to still partner with the state on the priority school cluster.

Lessons and inspiration

Either way, the Benwood Initiative continues to provide a roadmap for the work ahead by showing what can happen when chronically underperforming schools have the right supports.

“If the work had been sustained, I believe we may not be having this conversation today,” McQueen told Chalkbeat. “The Benwood Initiative did a lot of things well that we would hope to implement, but in a more sustainable way and over more schools.”

That means targeted, evidence-based investments and interventions — and a community that’s willing to pitch in and help its low-income students.

PHOTO: Doug Strickland/Times Free Press
Neighborhood resident Michelle Ingram places a teddy bear in memory of victims at the site of the fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga.

In an ironic way, Woodmore’s fatal bus crash has set the stage by galvanizing the community to action. In the months after the tragedy, people from across Hamilton County joined with nonprofit organizations to volunteer and shower the school with resources — an example of what can happen when students, educators and other stakeholders work together.

“Out of tragedy sometimes comes good things,” said Levine, “because it brings out the best in people.”

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.

Building Better Schools

How a new principal led her neighborhood school to the biggest ISTEP gains in Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 39 had the largest jump in passing rates on the state math and English tests in the district.

Breakfast at School 39 was a little bit hectic on a recent Wednesday, as staff urged kids to eat their bananas, yogurts and cereal.

But principal Stacy Coleman was calm as she stood among the tables of kindergartners and first graders. “Big bites now,” she said, as the bell approached.

Coleman is in her second year as principal of School 39, also known as William McKinley, a traditional neighborhood school on the edge of Fountain Square. In Coleman’s first year of leadership, the school achieved an unusual feat: Passing rate on both the math and English ISTEP climbed to 28 percent in 2017, up 9.7 percentage points over the prior year — the biggest jump of any school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

That progress caught the eye of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who highlighted McKinley as a school the district could learn from.

“We hired a great new leader,” said Ferebee. “She’s really focused on the culture of the school and using data to inform instruction.”

A Michigan native, Coleman has been an educator for seven years. She joined IPS three years ago as assistant principal at School 31, also known as James A. Garfield, a neighborhood school two miles from the campus she now leads.

Chalkbeat sat down with Coleman to talk about School 39 and the school’s remarkable jump in passing rates. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your school community like here?

We are a working-class neighborhood. Our families are working class — very supportive parents. Teachers call, they answer. They are up here. They care about their child’s well-being.

The neighborhood around us is changing. Gentrification is occurring, and it’s moving fast. However, we have not seen a change in our population of students yet.

We canvas the neighborhood quite often, me and my parent involvement educator. A lot of people we’ve talked to don’t have kids, and if they do have kids, they are not school-age yet.

You guys had this big bump in your test scores — the biggest in the district. What did you think when you saw that?

I felt so filled with emotion because I saw all the hard work that my teachers were doing, and I saw what we were doing with the kids. It just was nice to see the gains from the hard work.

You’re seeing the flowers that you’ve planted.

What do you think led to this big jump in test scores?

We really focused on making this a positive and safe environment for our students — and our staff. Changing staff morale, changing student morale and motivation.

We focused on empowering our teachers and putting that ownership on them.

What did you do to empower your teachers?

Allowing for professional learning community meetings to be teacher directed. It’s not like a staff meeting. It’s teachers talking and collaborating with each other, being transparent in our teaching practices, opening the doors of our classroom for other teachers to come in.

We did instructional rounds. Teachers went into other classrooms and observed a problem of practice and debriefed about those and put specific strategies into their classrooms.

As a teacher, I found a lot of power in those professional learning community meetings because that was when you got to delve into the numbers. You delve into the data and really understand how your students are doing.

Was there anything you feel like you stole from the last school you were at where you were assistant principal?

We do a lot of positive behavior interventions and supports here at William McKinley. We did a lot of them at James A. Garfield. We amped them up, last year and again this year.

Like, this year, we have Coleman cash. Every day a student is nominated by their teacher, and they get to go to the front of the lunch line. They get to sit at a special table in the cafeteria with a tablecloth and a centerpiece. They also get to invite a friend. They get to talk when everybody else is silent. All those good things.

On Friday, for staff, we are going to be superheroes. Then we take a picture, and classes are going to vote on them.

The students get to see us enjoying ourselves, and it’s a little bit of a fun Friday.

We’re just making it a great place to work and a great place to learn for our students.