Who's In Charge

What an author’s visit to Memphis tells us about competing ideas for the district’s future

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Marcus Robinson, left, CEO of Memphis Education Fund and author David Osborne at an event Tuesday in Crosstown Concourse.

When education insiders gathered earlier this week to hear from the author of a new book about school governance, they were also getting a glimpse into one big idea that’s reshaping local schools.

The author was David Osborne, and his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” argues that city school districts should stop directly running schools, and should instead hand that power over to non-government groups like charter schools.

It’s a model that some leaders in Memphis, including those who brought Osborne to town, are giving close attention. Among them is Marcus Robinson, the leader of the Memphis Education Fund, which hosted the event with Osborne. Robinson came to Memphis a year ago from Indianapolis, one of the cities Osborne highlights as a beacon of his favored model.

Originally called Teacher Town, last year Memphis Education Fund changed its name and adopted a new mission: to improve every aspect of local schools, not just teaching. But what efforts exactly would get the fund’s support has been unclear.

If Robinson does endorse Osborne’s vision and pushes leaders at Shelby County Schools to embrace charter schools, he and the Memphis Education Fund could find themselves on a collision course with the Shelby County Schools board.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

Currently, Shelby County’s schools chief, Dorsey Hopson, has made clear that he sees the district as competing with the charter sector, not receding to allow the sector to flourish or even existing peacefully alongside it. And throughout the presentation with Osborne, at least one school board member sitting in the audience, Stephanie Love, audibly made her displeasure known.

Robinson tried to appease Love and others in attendance who expressed skepticism about Osborne’s vision, while still backing a key requirement of it. “No matter how you do school or who is governing it, none of it works to get our kids up the ladder unless there is a high level of accountability to close a bad school,” he said.

Many aspects of schooling in Memphis puts it on the right track, according to Obsorne’s assessment. The state’s turnaround initiative, the Achievement School District, offers choice for parents, third-party operators running schools, and, at least in theory, consequences for schools that don’t deliver results. (Osborne lauded the district’s test scores, at times exaggerating their performance.) The school district has also supported an initiative to give some schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability. And a robust charter sector offers more choices for families, and deepens pressure for schools either to attract families or have to close.

But the school board and Hopson, its chosen leader, have been reluctant participants in some of those initiatives. While Hopson says he supports a portfolio district in theory, his administration has at times worked to undermine such a transition.

A searing example came in recent robocalls to parents, encouraging them not to allow charter schools to have access to their contact information.

In his presentation, Osborne said resistance from superintendents and school boards is the biggest obstacle to revamping school districts in the way he believes will make a difference for students. He suggested that school boards actually work against letting public will influence districts’ direction.

“If we are on a school board and we’re elected, and we have thousands of employees and they all vote in school board elections at which turnout is often 10 or 15 percent, we better not get them too angry at us or we’re going to lose our jobs,” Osborne said. “Same with the superintendent.”

Robinson echoed that sentiment, saying that the cities Osborne extols had “a lot of courage” to make systemic changes and close low-performing schools. He also said that in those cities, “the agents of change [are] the school board, not the principal.”

Since arriving in Memphis, Robinson has worked to import ideas from Indianapolis. He brought several of his deputies from that city, and next week, the Memphis Education Fund is paying for school board members to travel there.

Whether board members will be receptive to what they learn is unclear. After Obsorne’s book talk, Love defended the board as already having made unpopular decisions, such as to close nearly two dozen schools over the past five years.

If Osborne’s plan were the golden ticket, she said, schools across Memphis would be further along. But she said schools that the board does not supervise, including those run by the Achievement School District, are not held to the same standards.

“There is no real accountability across the board for all of our educational options,” Love said. “It sounded good, but it’s unrealistic.”

Vision

Lawmakers pledge to ‘put some legs’ to new Colorado education plan

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes stressed that a new education blueprint respects local control, as state Rep. Bob Ranking, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, and Gov. John Hickenlooper look on.

With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.

The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.

The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.

“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.

Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.

“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”

Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.

The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.

It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.

At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.

In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.

The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.  

“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.

Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.

Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.

“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”

Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.

Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.

“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.

Read the full report here.

growing enrollment

Denver Green School is the district’s pick for a new middle school in growing Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Workmen frame the walls in new affordable housing units in Stapleton in August 2018.

To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.

The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.

Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.

A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.

Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.

High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.

All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.

The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.

Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.

In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.

“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn’t work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”