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.

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.