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.”

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.