Movers & shakers

Principal of community school promoted to help spread the model in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Lori Phillips speaks at a Stand For Children panel event in February 2018. She will oversee spreading the community schools model in Memphis.

The founding principal of Memphis’ first “community school” has taken a new position leading efforts to engage families across the entire school district.

Lori Phillips became Shelby County Schools’ director of family and community engagement earlier this month, in a move that underscores the district’s commitment to expanding the community schools model.

District leaders said last summer that they plan to expand the model, which aims to meet students’ social and family needs as well as their academic ones, to up to 15 schools in the next three years. Spokeswoman Natalia Powers said last week that the district plans to convert three schools to community schools this fall but has not yet chosen them.

In her new role, Phillips will be responsible for leading that expansion. She’ll be able to draw on her experience at Belle Forest Community School, the elementary school in southeast Memphis that Phillips founded five years ago.

In keeping with the community schools model, Belle Forest houses a medical clinic and offers computer and financial literacy classes for parents. It also partners with local businesses and organizations to mitigate the impact of poverty seeping into the classroom. About 70 percent of students at Belle Forest are from low-income families.

It’s an approach that has grown in popularity as school districts across the country have recognized that more narrow efforts to improve student learning have not paid off. New York City has turned more than 100 schools into community schools, with mixed results. Colorado lawmakers are working to define and expand the model there. And in Tennessee, the approach has the backing of gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, who called community schools “one place to start” in improving low-performing schools.

Do community schools and wraparound services boost academics? Here’s what we know.

Shelby County Schools officials have lauded the work at Belle Forest but questioned the model’s cost. Community organizations and business would chip in for resources for the new community schools, but the district estimates its cost at about $100,000 per school. While that would represent a substantial new cost, it also would be one of the least expensive school improvement models that Shelby County Schools has replicated in recent years.

“We now have enough data that it’s a selling point,” Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin said at a panel event last fall. “And so we just need some advocates and people to help us replicate it. It’s an amazing school.”

Exactly what the district sees as the school’s successes is unclear. The school outperformed the district in math on last year’s state tests but saw its reading and science scores fall slightly. (The community schools model often helps in student learning, but in some cases show no effect, according to research on the topic.)

Griffin cited the school’s diversity and vibrancy when she praised Belle Forest in November. “It’s really like a melting pot,” she said. “It’s so diverse; they do some awesome and amazing things.”

She also said replicating the school — the task now on Phillips’ plate — would be a challenge, particularly because the school started fresh in a new building in 2013.

“As we talk about the best practices that have really impacted the student achievement, then we’ll be able to support that a little bit better,” Griffin said. “Because remember, that school is built from the ground up. It’s always been a community school.”

Phillips’ move means a leadership change for Belle Forest. Dinah Taylor, who had been an assistant principal, has replaced Phillips, according to the school’s website.

Emergency fix

Mold-infested Detroit school will be closed for the rest of the year, school board meeting ends in chaos

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.