future of work

Memphis charter school creates classroom inside international manufacturing hub

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kayvion Walton, 17, is learning how to test water samples as part of his environmental safety project. He is one of the students from Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering participating in the school’s pilot program with Smith & Nephew.

Ten students at a Memphis charter school will spend the majority of their senior year learning about medical engineering — all while training at a global technology giant.

Kayvion Walton, 17, is one of the seniors from Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering participating in the school’s pilot program this year with Smith & Nephew, a global business with part of its company based in south Memphis.

“I’ve been accepted to Xavier College and I wanted the chance to be out in the real world,” Walton said. “I’ve gotten to learn how robots make (prosthetic) knees here. I came in thinking I would go to school for nursing, and I’ve learned a lot about how prostheses are used in surgery.”

The seniors spend four hours of the school day working on different Smith & Nephew projects, ranging from quality checks on prosthetics to environmental safety practices. Students spend the mornings completing senior coursework at school before traveling seven miles to the manufacturing hub in South Memphis.

Called “STEM in Motion,” the program’s creation comes amidst renewed emphasis on career and technical education as part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

It is part of a larger national focus under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which holds states like Tennessee accountable for bolstering the number of career opportunities, such as apprenticeships, that are available to students. While the push for teaching career-specific skills has wide support, some research suggests that such programs leave students pigeonholed in a fast-changing economy.

But at Smith & Nephew, company officials see the program as a way to bolster a local pipeline for future jobs, said Jessica Becker, senior director of quality for Smith & Nephew. Becker sits on the MASE board and helped to coordinate the program.

“I started here as an intern and here I am more than 20 years later,” Becker said. “We, like many STEM-related companies, want to maintain talent locally. … We see real talent in these high school students and one hope of the program is that these students will return as college interns or employees someday.”

For this year, the students’ projects all focus on engineering, but that could expand in the future.

“We have teams that handle all aspects of business,” Becker said. “We’re excited to focus on engineering for now, but there’s a lot of potential for the program. We’re wanting to give students that real-world exposure that’s so rare in secondary education.”

The pilot is a first of its kind for both MASE and Smith & Nephew, who have had a longstanding partnership, said Rodrick Gaston, executive director of the 15-year-old charter school. The company is donating space and instructional time to the school, and in turn, the students are assisting in projects for free.

Gaston said they modeled the pilot after the MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where students spend each year of high school embedded in a different company or college around Cleveland.

Like MASE, the Cleveland high school has a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics focus. MC2 STEM opened 10 years ago as part of Cleveland’s push for more STEM-based schools and has seen successes in graduation rates and college-retention rates.

All seniors at the Memphis charter school with a 20 on the ACT and a 3.0-grade point average had the option to apply for the program, Gaston said. The school chose 10 seniors to participate out of about 20 applications.

But if all goes well during the pilot year, the goal would be to add more seniors to the Smith & Nephew program and partner a different company with the junior class. Gaston said they have had some conversations with Memphis children hospitals St. Jude and Le Bonheur on such a partnership.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
If all goes well during the pilot year, the goal would be to add more seniors to the Smith & Nephew program.

Success would look like fostering passion and curiosity among the students participating, Gaston said. But the school will also be monitoring the students’ grades and test scores to make sure that the program doesn’t take away from their academic success.

“We have a MASE teacher onsite to assist the students with their projects and incorporate lessons throughout the day,” Gaston said.

For Lakayla Mathews, a 17-year-old in the program, the biggest takeaway has been time management.

“I’m learning how to balance school work and this internship,” Mathews said. “I wanted to do it because I wanted that exposure before I graduated high school. I want to be a clinical psychologist, and learning work ethic and teamwork here will help in later on.”


Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.