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.”

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

listening tour

Estos padres quieren eliminar los obstáculos para hispanohablantes en las escuelas de Detroit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Un aguacero no pudo detener estas madres el martes. Asistieron una discusión sobre las escuelas en Detroit.

To read this story in English, click here.

Si te parece difícil navegar el sistema escolar de Detroit, imagínate como es cuando nadie habla tu idioma.

Una discusión el martes sobre los obstáculos que enfrentan los estudiantes que hablan español en Detroit dejó en claro que sus padres también se encuentran problemas parecidos.

Los padres que se presentaron en el edificio de Brilliant Detroit quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer y hablar en inglés, pero afirmaron que es mucho más difícil hacerlo cuando no se pueden comunicar con las escuelas.

“Uno siente que no tiene valor,” dijo Gloria Vera, hablando de sus interacciones con maestros angloparlantes. “Te sientes que tienes menos oportunidades para hacer preguntas. Yo por ejemplo me da miedo.”

Varias madres confesaron inquietudes sobre los efectos de la ley de lectura de Michigan, que podrá retrasar a estudiantes del tercer grado si su nivel de lectura no es suficientemente alto para el año que viene. Según una investigadora, un 70 por ciento de estudiantes que hablan español en Michigan podrán ser retrasados.

Una madre dijo que quiere apoyar a su hija mientras aprende a leer, pero se preocupaba que su propio nivel de inglés estaba demasiado bajo.

Otra, Delia Barba, sospecha que su hija tiene una discapacidad de aprendizaje, pero afirma que su escuela en el suroeste de Detroit, un barrio mayormente hispanohablante, todavía no la ha examinado.

Barba — como casi todos las madres que asistieron el evento — dijo que las escuelas deben contratar más empleados bilingües.

“No sabemos con quién hablar,” Barba dijo. “No hablan español.”

Chalkbeat, un periódico en linea que se enfoca en las escuelas de Detroit, está recorriendo la ciudad, preguntándoles a padres cuáles asuntos debemos investigar. Esta vez, Chalkbeat fue acompañado por organizaciones centradas en el barrio “Southwest.” Juntos, iniciamos una discusión con docenas de padres, mayormente madres hispanohablantes. Vinieron a la sede de Brilliant Detroit por la mañana, a pesar de un aguacero.

Algunas de las presentes ya habían colaborado con organizaciones locales como Congress of Communities y el Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation para insistir que los líderes del distrito de Detroit expanden acceso para familias que hablan español. Apuntaron que sus preguntas fueron ignorados por administraciones pasadas.

“Los residentes de la comunidad se sienten frustrados en 2018, porque han expresado la necesidad de acceso al idioma en repetidas ocasiones a lo largo de los años y una resolución es continuamente ignorada,” dijo Elizabeth Rojas, una organizadora que también es una madre del distrito. “Sabemos que los estudiantes se van de nuestra ciudad para asistir a los distritos escolares en los suburbios. Si fortalecemos nuestros servicios de idiomas, estamos seguros de que muchas más familias regresarán al distrito.”

En una reunión el mes pasado, el superintendente de escuelas Nikolai Vitti señaló que iba a establecer un “hotline” – linea telefónica – en español y que cada escuela con estudiantes que hablan español iba a contratar a un empleado hispanohablante en la oficina central, entre otras promesas.

Al recibir los resultados de una encuesta en el barrio, los padres ahora se están enfocando en la pregunta de seguridad en las escuelas. Esperan que las escuelas contratarán a más policías bilingües, y que padres que no tienen papeles serán permitidos entrar en las escuelas con una tarjeta de identificación alternativa, por ejemplo un pasaporte mexicano o un ID proporcionado por el mismo distrito.

El martes, los padres reportaron que también hay una falta de servicios bilingües en las escuelas “charter” en el suroeste de Detroit. Angelina Romero, quien llegó con su familia de México en los últimos años, se preocupaba que su hijo del primer grado no está aprendiendo inglés en una escuela “charter,” y que tenía dificultades en comunicarse con su maestra.

“Ojalá que las familias que asistieron este evento se dan cuenta que hay padres en otras escuelas y en otras partes de la ciudad que también quieren más servicios bilingües,” dijo Jametta Lilly, directora del Detroit Parent Network, uno de los anfitriones del evento.

Para Gloria Vera, fue aun más difícil navegar el sistema de educación especializada por la presencia de una barrera lingüística. Su hija recibió un diagnosis de autismo, pero cuando se presentó a la escuela le dijeron que no había suficiente espacio.

“Me dijeron, no puedes matricular tu hija aquí,” dijo Vera.

Le dieron un número de teléfono para llamar, pero Vera dudaba que la ayudara.

“No sabía inglés,” explicó. “Me sentía perdida.”

Encima de la discusión se cernía la ley de lectura del tercer grado. Para estos padres, nunca iba a ser fácil ayudar a sus niños a aprender a leer en un segundo idioma — pero la ley aumentó la presión.

Yesenia Hernandez afirmó que lee a su hija de segundo grado en inglés, pero se preocupaba que su pronunciación no es perfecta.

“Ella está aprendiendo, y yo la estoy confundiendo,” dijo.

Trabajando a lado de cinco madres, Hernandez creó una lista de las maneras en que su escuela podría ayudarle a ayudar a sus hijos. Otros grupos trabajaban en sus propias listas, y cuando compararon los resultados, se notaba muchas semejanzas. Por lo general, los padres querían comunicarse con las escuelas en español, y pidieron recursos — como clases de inglés para adultos  — cuyos beneficios se trasladarían a sus hijos. Un grupo apuntó la “sala de padres” de Priest Elementary-Middle School, donde padres que hablan español pueden reunir para compartir información y recursos.

Quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer, pero los padres admitieron que sienten inciertos sobre los efectos de la ley del tercer grado, que iniciará el año que viene. ¿Si sus hijos fueron retrasados al tercer grado, cómo serían afectados?

Para Delia Barba, no había problema: “¿Qué pasa si dicen pasa, pasa, pasa, y no sabe cómo leer?” preguntó.

Pero Gloria Vera tenía dudas. En su barrio, aproximadamente 80 por ciento de los estudiantes hablan español en casa. ¿Cuántos iban a ser regresados?

“En esta parte de Detroit, debe haber una solución,” dijo.