STAR LEADERSHIP

Seeking a new direction, this Memphis elementary school is turning to young black men for leadership

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Robert Harvey, Edward Stephens and James Johnson make up the new leadership team of STAR Academy Charter School in Memphis.

When principal James Johnson walks the hallways of STAR Academy Charter School in Memphis, students frequently reach out to give him a fist bump or a high five.

Johnson revels in such impromptu connections. As the new principal, he has worked quickly to create a new kind of culture at the mostly African-American elementary school, where he and two other young black males serve as the top leaders.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
James Johnson visits a classroom at STAR Academy, where he became principal last fall.

“We know it makes a difference if we’re excited to greet our students,” said Johnson, 29. “We want to be here, we want them to be here, and we want them to be excited about that.”

Opened in 2004, STAR is one of Memphis’ oldest charter schools but turned to new leadership to address static enrollment and academic performance. Johnson was recruited last fall by Robert Harvey, 28, who became STAR’s chief executive officer in 2016 and hired Edward Stephens, 31, as chief strategy officer.

The trio of young black male administrators stands out in the world of elementary education. Nationwide, only 2 percent of K-12 educators are black men. It’s slightly better in Shelby County Schools, which oversees more than 40 charter schools including STAR. Male educators of color comprise almost 10 percent of the workforce in the Memphis district.

Research shows that for students like those at STAR, where 94 percent of children are of color, the presence of an educator who looks like them can make a big difference, especially for boys. A recent study showed that black boys in Tennessee and North Carolina were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades.

But recruiting such educators continues to be a struggle for Tennessee districts, reflecting a nationwide challenge. Of the candidates who completed the state’s teacher programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of Tennessee’s student population.

Harvey came to Memphis by way of the East Coast, where he worked as an administrator with several private boarding schools. As a graduate student at Harvard University, he studied black male students, academic achievement and poverty in Memphis — research that he now calls “serendipitous” because of his arrival at STAR Academy.

Harvey is well aware that his own academic journey offers hope to his students, and boys in particular.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students raise their hands during a lesson at STAR Academy.

“For young men in elementary school, we know a guiding factor for the prison pipeline is third-grade literacy,” Harvey said. “We’re going to offer a counter narrative through our leadership team. We’re here to shift the conversation with our students and show them that their futures are in no way pre-determined.”

That means rethinking school culture, parental engagement, and student discipline at STAR, which has an enrollment of 248. Last year, the school suspended 10 students. Harvey’s goal is to get that number to zero.

“When a student — in particular a black boy — is suspended, the chances of them graduating high school is reduced and the chances of them going to prison is increased,” Harvey said. “We have students sit with us for hours sometimes rather than sending them home. And we don’t believe in a compounding discipline model, either. Every day is a fresh start for a child.”

Toward that end, the school’s new “check system” for discipline gives each student four chances to improve behavior before experiencing a consequence. Building relationships are key, according to Johnson, himself a former elementary school teacher in Memphis.

“We’re working with our teachers on discipline training, but also in giving them support in the classroom so they can focus on instruction,” Johnson said. “We know many of our students don’t have a direct male presence at home. We’re trying to be a visible, positive influence. A handshake or hug can do a lot.”

Shelia Matthews, a longtime STAR teacher, said she’s already seeing a difference in school culture.

“Some are big changes, but some are little things, like leadership going out to greet the car line every morning during drop-off,” she said. “They’ve gained respect in a short amount of time.”

Charlie Tate, the father of a fifth-grader and active in the school’s basketball program, said he was nervous at first about the leadership change but now sees how Harvey and his team are building relationships that might have eluded other administrators.

“I can tell you because of my experience with the basketball team, a lot of children don’t have father figures in the house,” he said. “In their teachers, they’ve had positive role models and relationships with women, and that’s great. But seeing a man who looks like them in a role of principal or school leader or teacher while they’re so young, I’ve realized what a huge deal that is to these boys.”

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools