parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.


Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”