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. (Update: The school board voted Sept. 21 to move ahead with a partnership zone.)

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.”

gratitude journal

Gracious students, baking adventures, and kindergarten babies: what Chalkbeat readers say they’re appreciating this year

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis kindergartners dressed for a Thanksgiving feast

For people who mark their lives by the school-year calendar, November can be an especially tough time. The optimism of a fresh start has worn off, but hard work hasn’t fully borne fruit, and there are so many months left before summer break.

So Thanksgiving comes at exactly the right moment to pause and appreciate everything that’s going right. Here’s what Chalkbeat readers said when we asked them what they’re appreciating this year:

“I’m appreciating my students more than ever this year. In a time of such political strife, my students have shown incredible resilience and courage in the face of a very uncertain future. Their ability to balance hard work at school and the work they do outside of the classroom makes me incredibly grateful that they are willing to show up each day and put forth their best effort.” — Ashley Farris, 12th-grade teacher, Denver

“A supportive school family.” — Anissa Christian, kindergarten teacher, Memphis

“I am so thankful for the opportunity to be able to inspire and teach our future leaders of tomorrow!” — Darlene Dorsette, Detroit

What are you thankful for? Add your voice here.

I am thankful for students who are gracious and forgiving when mistakes are made in the classroom. I am also thankful that students who have suffered from so much teacher turnover but are still willing to trust teachers and allow them to invest in their lives.” — Michael Schulte, 11th-grade teacher, Memphis

“It’s now my fourth year in the role of elementary art teacher, and although I do miss the deeper connections I used to make with the students in my classroom, I am thankful for the chance to teach over 400 students every week. Being able to touch so many lives is what teaching is all about.” — Kevin Vaughn, Dolores, Colorado

“Acting wildly goofy with my family. Taking long walks in the cold woods. Baking adventures (mishaps) with my mom. Laughing uncontrollably. Napping on the couch for hours with a good book.” — Katy C., sixth-grade teacher, Denver

“The reaction that you see in students faces when you share an interesting or funny background story about an event.” Virginia DeCesare, high school history teacher, Greenwood, Colorado

“My kindergarten babies.” — Kristy Russell, kindergarten teacher in Memphis

“I’m thankful for my wife, my kids, and that I’m a public school teacher.” — Jeff Ponce, high school special education teacher in Los Angeles

We’ll update this list with more reader submissions as they come in, so add yours here. And please know: We appreciate you. From the comments you leave, to the tips you offer, to the Facebook shares that help our stories reach more people, your contributions make our reporting about your schools so much stronger. Happy Thanksgiving!

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.