money talks

Big education funders were in Memphis this week. Here’s what they talked about.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
A mural paying homage to the 1968 sanitation worker strike in Memphis is near the National Civil Rights Museum, where the Philanthropy Roundtable sponsored part of its 2017 forum on K-12 education investments. The mural is by Marcellous Lovelace.

More than 150 funders from across the nation converged on Memphis this week to learn about how they should be investing their dollars to expand education access in K-12 schools.

Held partly at the National Civil Rights Museum, the two-day forum coincided with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination in Memphis of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — an observance that set the stage for discussions about education equity in America.

“Memphis is a hub of innovation where philanthropists and leaders are working to provide students from under-resourced backgrounds with access to excellent schools, teachers, and leaders,” said Katherine Haley, senior director of K-12 education programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable, which sponsored the forum through its Washington D.C.-based network of charitable donors.

Participants toured Soulsville and Power Middle School charter schools. They also learned about big lessons from investments in Memphis in the last decade. Among the speakers were Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District; David Montague, executive director of Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher preparation program; and Pitt and Barbara Hyde of the Hyde Family Foundation, a major funder in Memphis education. (Chalkbeat receives funding from the Hyde Foundation. Read about our funding here.)

Chalkbeat spoke with Tosha Downey, advocacy director for the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools, and also heard from Hyde Foundation CEO Barbara Hyde. Here are three big takeaways.

1. The funding story in Memphis shows why local buy-in is crucial.

Tosha Downey

Education reformers have a history of not listening to the communities they are trying to serve, and Memphis is no exception, according to Downey.

“There’s this persona among people doing this work of ‘I got my great degree and went to great a school, so I can make assumptions about what I know and not actually talk to people impacted,’” Downey told Chalkbeat after the event. “I get the sense folks have made that mistake a lot. … I hope they walked away with concrete examples of what we’ve done here.”

Downey served on one panel discussion with Sarah Carpenter, executive director of The Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that the forum heralded as an example of authentic community engagement.

2. The ‘portfolio model’ is in.

During one Q&A, Hyde said her foundation has placed its bets on the portfolio model of school governance, which is the idea that schools should be managed like stocks in a portfolio. That includes a diversity of models, with the most successful ones receiving the go-ahead and resources to expand.

The Hyde Foundation is among philanthropic groups betting big on this model, although success can look vastly different from city to city. Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which operates 30 schools, mostly charter schools in Memphis, has been called a “national exemplar” in pioneering the portfolio model, but the district’s academic progress has lagged.

Downey said one benefit of the portfolio model is a move away from a dynamic of pitting charter schools against traditional public schools in the fight for resources. Both types of schools can be worthy of investment, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Downey said. “Every school being a charter school is not a goal for us. But having enough opportunity and diversity of school types and models is.”

3. Invest in quality over growth.

Hyde said Memphis grew its charter sector too quickly. About 80 operate in the city today, compared to 15 in 2010.

Her foundation has made a course correction to focus on “quality, not growth.”

“Over last five to six years, we built a robust network of high-performing charter schools,” she said. “Not all are performing at the level we’d like, but we have talent on the ground.”

She cited three ways to double down on quality: Strengthen the teacher pipeline, strengthen curriculum, fund wraparound services.

The roundtable’s next national forum on K-12 philanthropy is scheduled for April 2019 in Denver.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.