Handoff proposed

State-run district proposes shifting Memphis middle school to homegrown charter group

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White, who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, speaks to community members at Westside Middle.

After years of dwindling enrollment, the only middle school in Memphis that’s run directly by Tennessee’s turnaround district could be switching hands.

The proposed change would keep Westside Achievement Middle School in the state-run Achievement School District but take it out of the district’s direct management. The plan would be to move Westside to Frayser Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter network that already operates two ASD schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart announces the proposed change during a community meeting.

Interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart announced the proposed change during a meeting Tuesday evening with more than 50 community members, parents, and students.

The recommendation is in line with major changes in the ASD in the last year as federal funding for the turnaround district has run out and Tennessee’s Department of Education has revised its turnaround strategies under a new federal education law.

The ASD manages five direct-run Memphis schools, all in the Frayser community, but there are no plans to relinquish control of the other four schools, according to Airhart. The other four are elementary schools.

Handing off Westside to Frayser Community Schools would allow the district to avoid the drastic step of closing the school — an option that three other charter operators in the ASD’s portfolio have chosen when faced with many of the same issues.

The discussion comes at a time when district leaders are trying to rehabilitate the ASD’s image after turnaround efforts at most of its 32 schools haven’t improved test scores as much as founding leaders promised. Earlier this month, officials with a Houston-based charter organization announced plans to shutter GRAD Academy, the district’s highest-performing high school, this spring due to enrollment and financial issues.

Airhart said a change is needed due to multiple challenges at Westside, including lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. The school’s enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, when it joined the state-run district, and lost 18 percent of students just this year.

“When I got here in October, I said there were places where the house was on fire,” Airhart told the crowd. “Places where we had to worry about big things before the small things. Westside was one of those places.”

The state won’t make an official decision until late February after parents, teachers, and students have had a chance to weigh in, Airhart said, adding that more meetings will be held over the next month. She said the district would continue to run the school if there is intense opposition.

This wouldn’t be the first time Frayser Community Schools has stepped in to manage an ASD school that’s struggling with test scores and enrollment. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the district.

Bobby White, the CEO who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, has maintained that his organization has the relationships and know-how to build enrollment in Memphis while also making academic gains.

And he has a Westside tie: White was a principal at Westside nine years ago when it was operated by the former Memphis City Schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The state won’t make an official decision until late February after parents, teachers, and students have had a chance to weigh in.

“I’m nervous to speak to you all because this is my house,” White said at the parent meeting. “This is deeply personal to me. … I left schools to start a turnaround organization where we took over existing schools and turn them around. We can do that here.”

Several parents and community members in the room Tuesday said they were disappointed with the amount of teacher turnover at West Side Middle under the ASD, but expressed optimism about a change.

“I really have faith that if Bobby [White] comes here and teachers stay — good teachers come and stay — then my son can be successful here,” said Markeita Douglas, a Frayser resident with a 12-year-old son. “As a parent, I’m going to hold you accountable, because my son cannot fall through the cracks.”

Testing

New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.