Dueling pathways

McQueen’s plan would interrupt Hopson’s for improving one Memphis school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey watches after kindergarteners in a 2017 graduation ceremony at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in Memphis.

When Superintendent Dorsey Hopson allotted extra funding last year for more than a dozen low-performing Memphis schools, the idea was to provide more resources and a chance for improvement before making any decisions about closing them.

After all, Shelby County Schools has learned a lot about how to improve academics at struggling schools through its own Innovation Zone, a school turnaround program that invests significant resources and even lengthens the school day to try to change a school’s trajectory.

But a new state intervention plan outlined this month by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen would stop Hopson’s “critical focus” plan in its tracks for one school.

McQueen is recommending that the district close Hawkins Mill Elementary because of low test performance and enrollment, a decision reinforced by a recent school visit from state officials.

Her recommendation comes just as Hawkins Mill Principal Antonio Harvey is in the first year of rolling out a school improvement plan that includes several new hires, team projects, and a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering, and math.

School board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes the Frayser school, said the state should focus on how to support the work already happening there.

“They have a plan in place. The school year is not over,” Love told Chalkbeat. “Before this recent test, the school was improving. Yes, it did dip with the new test, but the whole district dipped.”

The divergent plans set the stage for another potential showdown between local and state officials over the best way to address a chronically underperforming school. While the state is seeking to work more collaboratively with local leaders, McQueen’s plan shows that the state will get a greater say in interventions already in place.

Shelby County’s school board is scheduled to revisit parts of the state’s plan on Tuesday evening after discussing it last week for the first time.

Memphis public schools have had an especially rocky relationship with the State Department of Education since 2012 when Tennessee’s turnaround district launched and began taking over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigning them to charter operators to turn around.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

But the state’s new accountability plan, developed in response to a 2015 federal education law, is meant to empower local districts with time and resources to improve academics. That would slow down state’s heavy-handed method that has been the norm for the last six years.

In most ways, the state is staying true to its new commitment. Across Tennessee, only one school — American Way Middle, also in Memphis — is on track for charter conversion through the state-run Achievement School District, compared to five the state recommended in 2015. And for the first time in the ASD’s history, the state is giving Shelby County Schools the option of bringing on its own charter operator for American Way instead of relying on the ASD.

As for Hawkins Mill, there are a lot of unknowns under Tennessee’s new era of school improvement. It’s unclear if Hopson’s critical focus plan meets the state’s standard of a “recognized, evidence-based intervention” that allows for more leeway from the state. And it’s unclear how much progress Hawkins Mill has made so far. Last week, district officials were not immediately able to provide data from the school’s ongoing assessments that are designed to show growth prior to students taking state tests this spring.

(Under Hopson’s critical focus plan, in order to avoid closure in three years, Hawkins Mill and others would need to score between a 3 and 5 on the district’s new grading system for schools and increase enrollment to at least 70 percent capacity.)

Either way, since McQueen’s recommendations were mostly based on data up until last school year, any progress at Hawkins Mill this year would not carry as much weight. Plus, the school already had been considered for state takeover in 2015. One major factor is that the school has had the same principal for more than three years — generally enough time to chart a change in a school’s trajectory, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees school improvement initiatives for the district.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast cited multiple factors for the department’s recommendation, “including two cycles on the Priority school list, data that indicates it will be on the Priority school list again in 2018, discussions with the district, and the school’s enrollment.”

“We continue to affirm this recommendation,” she said.

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the school has had enough time.

“It is time for Hawkins Mill to close because for years, it has failed to educate our students. Some I know have left the elementary school not knowing how to read,” she said in a statement. “More money will not turn around this failing school, and we can’t allow bad schools to stay open when it costs our kids their education.”

But the decision to close has to come from the school board, since the state only has the power to recommend that action. Some school board members already have indicated they would rather move Hawkins Mill to the iZone than close it. Hopson wants to stay the course under his critical focus plan.

Either way, school board chairwoman Shante Avant said last week it would be wrong for the district to go back on its “promise” to schools like Hawkins Mill.

“I think it’s our responsibility as a board,” she said, “if that’s what we said that’s the track we’re going on, that we continue to provide those kinds of resources.”

The district will hold a community meeting at Hawkins Mill at 6 p.m. on March 8 to review the state’s recommendation.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.