Movers & shakers

The state-run Achievement Schools has a new academic leader. Here’s her vision for amplifying the district’s top teachers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD's chief of academics in August. She's now a finalist to lead schools in a Massachusetts district.

As the newly named chief academic officer for Tennessee’s turnaround district, Verna Ruffin said one of her first priorities will be investing in their top tier teachers.

“We know that we have critical work to do,” Ruffin said. “And we also know that investing in our classrooms is a sure way to move the needle on student achievement. We have teachers who are doing amazing work. We need to amplify them.”

Ruffin joins the state’s Achievement School District, known as the ASD, during a chaotic season of change. One month after she was hired as part of a major leadership team overhaul, the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, announced she was stepping down. Ruffin will work with the interim superintendent, Kathleen Airhart, until Anderson’s replacement is hired.

When the state-run district launched in 2011, it was with the aspiration to turn around schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state through new charter management. But results have lagged, and school leaders say turnaround work has been harder than expected in Memphis, where many of their students live in generational poverty and come to school behind grade level.

Ruffin’s role with the five-year-old district is a new one. She will oversee the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by the former executive director, Tim Ware. But her job description also includes raising the academic bar across all 32 ASD schools and promoting more collaboration among them.

The most recent round of state test scores show the district has work ahead to reach its visionaries’ original goal. The state’s growth scores, announced last week, rank the Achievement district as a level 1, the lowest possible score. And within the direct-run Achievement Schools, which Ruffin directly oversees, three of five schools scored a level 1.

Ruffin got her start in education more than 30 years ago as a band director in Louisiana before moving into school leadership roles. She was an assistant superintendent in Tulsa, Okla., where she specialized in working with low-performing schools, before becoming superintendent at Jackson-Madison County Schools in 2013. She will earn $115,000 a year with the Achievement Schools.

We sat down with Ruffin to hear about her game plan for improving the Achievement district’s academics in her new role. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Tennessee’s growth formula, known as TVAAS, ranked the ASD as a level 1 overall for academic growth. What is your initial read of those scores, and how do you plan to raise the bar?

I’m very proud of the schools that earned a rating of 5 and for their contributions for growing students beyond a typical year’s growth. Of the five schools in the direct-run Achievement Schools, we had one at a level 5 and one at a level 3.

But the other direct-run schools and a number of schools within the whole network received a level 1. There is an urgency to focus on instruction and strategies to help children become successful. I’m thinking through — what does this mean for individual schools?

A focus for me will be to look at staff members and their individual TVAAS scores. We have level 5 teachers, and we can get them to collaborate more and bring their strengths to their own campuses, but also to the ASD as a network. The TVAAS conversation is still challenging to understand. How do you measure growth? How can you determine that when the assessment has changed?  It can be hard to get people to subscribe to something you can’t explain, and we’re having ongoing conversations about what the data can tell us moving forward.

Talk to me more about your vision for investing in individual teachers to raise academic performance.

When I was superintendent in Jackson-Madison, we added instructional times in the afternoons at one of our lower performing schools. We sought level 4 and 5 teachers across the district and asked them: “Would you come teach at this school in the afternoons during their after-school program?” We asked the teachers to look at the data of students within that school and come up with a plan for what they were going to teach the children. We opened up an application process, and teachers came. That year, this school jumped from a level 1 to a level 5 in growth. We attribute that to the emphasis on instruction and the quality staff that was willing to work with the children in an after-school, purposeful, instructional model.

We think that this model, effectively implemented, is how you’re going to change learning for children. We do not have enough level 4 or 5 teachers across the district to just say, we’re going to take a level 5 teacher from this school and put them over in this school because then we’re going to create a deficit model. So, it’s about how to utilize the talent of your current staff and spread it out so they can influence children in another school in an acceptable way to teachers. This is something I would absolutely consider doing within the ASD.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the ASD as a whole?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that the ASD has existed with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and people are accustomed to that autonomy. And they may not quite embrace the fact that even if we have autonomy, we have a shared goal. And we have to meet that goal.

So, the autonomy of the ASD isn’t going away, but we have to better describe and define what an ASD education is. Our goal is the same for every school in the ASD, to raise student achievement. We have a moral responsibility working with the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee to not stay at the bottom 5 percent. And so, having said that, there are some things that we’ve got to do that are non-negotiable that will get us out of the bottom 5 percent of schools. We have to be better. We have to figure out what’s going to make the ASD stand out, and how we work together as a very diverse group of schools.

Part of your role is to foster more collaboration between the direct-run Achievement Schools and the other charter-run schools within the ASD. What is your vision for building cross-district collaboration?

First, is taking the time to make connections. We are doing this work together, and the only way we can do that is to know one another. It’s a very small, but a big step. I am planning on meeting with the other chief academic officers in the ASD to work in step with them on a vision for the future.

We’re also creating a new academic team, which we are still in the process of hiring for. This team will include content specialists in literacy and math that will work across the district. These specialists can help us zero in across the district on what effective instruction is.

Our focus — across all ASD schools — on kindergarten through third-grade literacy is also going to be very strong this year. I’m asking questions like, “What does a phonics lesson look like across the ASD? How can we learn from one another on how to better teach phonics?”

We’re no longer working in silos, but there’s going to be collaboration on what classroom instruction looks like. And then we’re going to better monitor that instruction and hold ourselves accountable to making the gains we have to make.

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”