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.

moving on

Dismissed by KIPP over sexual harassment allegations, co-founder Mike Feinberg starts new organization

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was fired earlier this year over sexual harassment allegations, has started a new organization.

Called the Texas School Venture Fund, the group describes itself as helping individuals start and grow schools. It has already drawn a handful of prominent education reform advocates to its board.

This new group’s existence and Feinberg’s prominent role in it raise questions about how education leaders will deal with sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Its board indicates that some will continue to support Feinberg’s work despite the specific claims against him, which he has denied.

According to KIPP, which has grown to over 200 schools nationwide, Feinberg was dismissed due to allegations of child sexual abuse in the late 1990s and two separate sexual harassment allegations by adult KIPP alumni and employees from the early 2000s, one of which resulted in a financial settlement.

A 2009 photo of Mike Feinberg. (Via MerlinFTP Drop.)

That investigation found the allegation “credible” but did not “conclusively confirm” it, KIPP said. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” Feinberg said in the statement at the time.

Feinberg’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the education reform community, where he was deeply connected.

Feinberg, who is listed as the president of the new group, declined to comment for this story through his attorney. He described his ambitions for the organization in a LinkedIn post, saying the Texas School Venture Fund would be “a catalyst to the creation of innovative and responsive schools” that would work with educators on “starting new schools, helping single-site schools start to grow, [and] helping networks of schools continue to grow.”

Howard Fuller — the former Milwaukee schools superintendent and prominent advocate of private school vouchers for low-income families — is on the Texas School Venture Fund’s board. He told Chalkbeat that the “core group” that Feinberg will work with are KIPP alumni who want to start their own schools, though he said it will not be limited to KIPP graduates.

“I felt like this was something Mike can do well, so I’m happy to help in any way I can,” he said.

Fuller said he does not believe the allegations against Feinberg and they did not give him pause in continuing to work with him.

“Mike is a very close friend of mine,” Fuller said. “Mike said he did not do it.”

Also on the board of directors of the new group are Leo Linbeck, III, a Texas businessman who is listed as the chair of the board, and Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s school turnaround district and now works at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Linbeck declined to speak on the record. Barbic did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fuller said the group is in its early stages and is seeking funding, though he couldn’t say whether it has any funders presently. (Neerav Kingsland, head of the education giving at the Arnold Foundation, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether his group was funding Feinberg’s organization, which is not listed among Arnold’s current grantees.)

Few new details have emerged about Feinberg’s dismissal or the investigation that precipitated it.

A brief video of KIPP Houston’s board meeting the day before Feinberg’s firing was announced shows members immediately going into executive session, which is private, to consider a personnel matter. Feinberg did not appear to be present.

Three hours later, the board voted to delegate authority to the chair to negotiate and execute “employment arrangements” with Feinberg.

All but one of the board members present supported the move. The exception was Karol Musher, who abstained. Musher is now on the board of the Texas School Venture Fund. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in March, Chalkbeat filed a public records request to KIPP Houston seeking information about Feinberg’s dismissal, including the investigation conducted by an external law firm.

In an April letter to the Texas attorney general requesting an advisory opinion, a lawyer for KIPP contended that the information is shielded from public disclosure due to attorney–client privilege. (The version of the letter provided to Chalkbeat is partially redacted.)

Chalkbeat has yet to receive word on an opinion by the attorney general.

Where they stand

Where candidates for governor in Michigan stand on major education issues

There’s a lot at stake for students, parents, and educators in this year’s Michigan governor’s race.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could determine everything from how schools are funded to how they’re measured and judged. Some candidates are considering shuttering low-performing schools across the state. Others have called for charter schools to get some additional oversight.

To see where major party candidates stand on crucial education issues, Chalkbeat joined with our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to ask candidates for their views on school funding, early childhood education, and paying for college.

All seven major-party candidates on the ballot in Michigan’s August 7 primary were invited to sit down with the journalism cooperative, which also includes Bridge Magazine, WDET Radio, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public Television, and New Michigan Media, to answer a range of questions.

Six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans — accepted our invitation. The one candidate who declined was Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is generally considered the Republican frontrunner.

The candidates were largely asked a standard set of questions. Read some of their answers — edited for length and clarity — below. Sort answers by candidate or see everyone’s answer to each question.

Or, to see each candidate’s full response to the education questions, watch videos of the interviews here.

(Full transcripts of the interviews, including answers to questions about roads, the environment and other issues are here).