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University of Memphis, Shelby County Schools forge new partnership to address teacher shortage

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shortly after creating its River City Partnership in 2017, The University of Memphis established is creating an urban teacher training track in its College of Education in partnership with Shelby County Schools.

The University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools are creating a partnership aimed at training the next generation of teachers to work in the city’s classrooms.

PHOTO: University of Memphis
Kandi Hill-Clarke is the new dean of the College of Education.

The college announced plans on Thursday to launch its Urban Education Teacher Prep program by fall of 2019 under new dean Kandi Hill-Clarke, a Memphis native recruited home this year from Indiana State University, where she was also dean.

Hill-Clarke is designing the track as part of the university’s new River City Partnership with Shelby County Schools. The goal is to work together to strengthen the pipeline of skilled new teachers who are culturally aware of the needs of urban students. As part of the program, teacher candidates will receive classroom experience and mentoring in some of the district’s highest-needs schools.

“The University of Memphis recognizes the challenges facing the Shelby County region can be addressed through a stronger education system and that must be cultivated from the ground up,” said M. David Rudd, the university’s president. “By collaborating with the Shelby County public school system, we can work together to better train and prepare future educators who are eager to continue to invest in the Memphis community and teach the next generation of students.”

With the partnership, the university is stepping up to the plate to fill the chronic need for more teachers in Memphis. At the start of this school year, for instance, Shelby County Schools was short of at least 175 new teachers, especially in subjects like math, science, and special education.

But it also has the potential to energize the university’s College of Education where, mirroring a national trend, the number of graduates has decreased by about half since 2013.

Source: University of Memphis

This isn’t the first time the university has tried to create an urban teaching track. Three years ago, university leaders attempted to partner with New York-based Relay Graduate School of Education to offer an alternative licensure program that would send its candidates into some of the city’s most challenging classrooms. But the deal fell apart when faculty protested that its own College of Education wasn’t part of those negotiations.

Hill-Clarke says the River City Partnership turns the page on that chapter.

“This initiative is personal and professional for me,” said Hill-Clarke, an alumna of the University of Memphis. “I need and want to see the district, community, and university succeed and do well. … We asked the school district what they needed, and this program is an answer. But it’s also a win for us.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he hopes the retooled program can produce and equip educators to handle the challenges of a district in which 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

“When speaking with the new dean, we talked about how the university was not producing a high number of teachers who were going into our high-needs schools,” Hopson said. “We got to a point where we figured out, what if we reorient the training and the experience and cultural competencies necessary for them to be successful?”

University officials said they need $7.5 million more to launch the program and sustain it for five years. Chief development officer Bobby Prince has been in talks with private funders, and he is optimistic the program could launch with at least 25 students.

In the meantime, the partnership includes several other components that will roll out in 2018. This summer, the university will host a week-long Summer Bridge Program for Shelby County high schoolers interested in learning about urban teaching.

And this fall, a recruitment program called High School Teacher Cadets will begin in three Memphis high schools, which are yet to be selected. Hill-Clarke said Teacher Cadets will mirror Future Teachers of America, a national program that mentors high school students interested in the teaching profession.

“We see this as mutually beneficial,” she said. “The hope is to instill an early love and interest in Memphis high schoolers for teaching, and then connect them to us as a place to further their education after they graduate.”

Another goal is to attract students of color to train in the city’s under-resourced high schools in the hopes that they will return to teach in those same schools.

The River City Partnership is launching during a season of increased scrutiny of the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee. Not a single public university in the state scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. The University of Memphis scored a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. The state is to release new report cards in mid-February.

In recent years, Memphis has seen the birth of several non-traditional teacher prep programs such as Memphis Teacher Residency and Relay, which launched in 2015 without the University of Memphis. But Rudd says only the University of Memphis, with a student body of 22,000, has the resources and scale to make a dent in the local teacher shortage.

“I see this as a recognition of the role that an urban public research university should play in this city,” Rudd said. “Undeniably, education is one of the top challenges …  in Memphis. I don’t think we can address the problem without the university’s involvement.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.