after parkland

Shelby County students walking out tomorrow want to return with specific recommendations on school safety

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Rafael Perez, a student in New York City, walked out during a March protest against gun violence.

Memphis high school students walking out of class this week to protest gun violence plan to return with practical suggestions for how local schools can improve school security.

The walkouts on Thursday will honor the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed. About 20 Memphis-area high schools will participate in the event as part of a national walkout, according to student organizers. A few additional Memphis schools will hold a walkout on Friday.

The protests are a response to the killing of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, in February. Since the school shootings, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

More than 20 area students began planning the walkout in March, after students missed the initial wave of walkouts following the tragic Parkland shootings because Memphis schools were on spring break.

This time, students are preparing for more than a walkout. To honor those killed, the program will include 17 minutes of silence.  But students also plan to gather in front of their schools to participate in youth-led “know your rights” discussions around topics ranging from police violence to sexual harassment to education. Some schools will also feature speakers, balloon releases, songs, and spoken word performances.

Throughout, students will be gathering suggestions on solutions for gun violence and school safety via the social media hashtag #youthsolutions901. (The number 901 is the primary area code for Memphis.) They will also register students to vote.

Savanah Thompson, one of the student organizers, said they will take these recommendations to the Shelby County School board meeting on April 24.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson met with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout.

“These students represent all that is right in our youth,” Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said during a presentation from students on Tuesday. Hopson promised students wouldn’t be punished for walking out.

Thursday’s protest will come on the heels of a chaotic week of state testing. Natalia Powers, spokeswoman for the Memphis district, said principals were advised to consider rearranging testing schedules to avoid timing conflicts with the walkouts.

“Even though most of our high schools are participating, their programs or activities are taking place during the last hour of their school day to avoid conflicts with the test,” since most testing happens in the morning, Powers said.

One Memphis student said seeing the bravery of Parkland students is what inspired her to get involved with the protest.

“Seeing all the survivors from Florida who are speaking up impacted me,” said Amal Altareb, a senior at Central High School.  “It made me question — what am I doing? What’s my influence? I don’t know if what I do on Thursday will be a big help, but I do know we’re part of this bigger movement.”

New leader

Lee picks Texas academic chief Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s next education commissioner

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee's education commissioner under governor-elect Bill Lee. He announced her hiring on Thursday, two days before his inauguration. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Fast facts about Schwinn

  • Age: 36
  • Hometown: Sacramento, California
  • Bachelor of Arts, University of California-Berkeley, 2004
  • Master of Arts in Teaching, Johns Hopkins University, 2006
  • Ph.D. in Education Policy, Claremont Graduate University, 2016

An educator who began her career with Teach For America and has been the academic chief for Texas will be Tennessee’s next education commissioner.

Penny Schwinn was tapped Thursday by governor-elect Bill Lee to join his administration in one of his most important and closely watched cabinet picks.

She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for academic programs, standards, special education, and research and analysis, among other things.

In a statement, Lee praised Schwinn’s experience as both a teacher and administrator. An accompanying news release touted her reform work for leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” and expansion of career readiness programs for students in Texas.

“Penny leads with students at the forefront, and I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years,” said Lee.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet hires for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday. The responsibilities are also are among the most specialized as the governor-elect pledged to improve public education in a state that has seen gains on national tests in recent years, even as it has struggled with to transition to online exams in its own testing program.

Schwinn is viewed as a change agent who is focused on students but also has been criticized for the reforms that she’s led in multiple states.

Before Texas, she was an assistant education secretary in Delaware, an assistant superintendent in Sacramento, California, where she grew up, and she served as an elected school board member.

She started her education career with Teach For America, one of the nation’s largest alternative teacher training programs, and taught high school history and economics for Baltimore public schools. Returning to her hometown, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students similar to those that her mother taught for four decades.

Last year, she was the youngest of three finalists to be considered for Massachusetts’ education commissioner, a job that went to Jeffrey Riley, a native of the state.

In Tennessee, Schwinn will execute Lee’s vision on policies affecting about a million public school students, a third of whom come from low-income families.

With his choice, Lee has gone outside of Tennessee and traditional classroom training, so she will have to work steadily to build trust with the state’s numerous stakeholders in public education. Groups that represent the state’s superintendents and teachers had urged the Republican businessman to choose someone with a deep knowledge of education policy in Tennessee.

Schwinn follows two education commissioners under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach For America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches. In particular, Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and politically contentious academic standards known as Common Core.

Schwinn was among the last cabinet picks for Lee, who will take the oath of office on Saturday and will dig in quickly to prepare his first proposed spending plan in Tennessee.

Setting and overseeing public education policy is among the biggest responsibilities of state government, which spends $5 billion of its $37.5 billion budget on schools and is required under federal law to administer annual tests to assess student progress.

Lee also campaigned that education would be one of his top priorities, promising a renewed focus on career, technical and agricultural education; more competitive pay for educators; a closer look at the state’s testing program; and more school options for parents to choose from.

Schwinn’s job will be to help Lee implement that vision, according to McQueen, who calls the state’s top education job “a unique opportunity.”

“You’re also making sure that public education is being supported well around resources and human capital and that you have high expectations for all students, not just certain groups. You have to elevate equity in every single thing you do,” McQueen told Chalkbeat last month before stepping down to become CEO of a national group focused on teacher quality.

Among Schwinn’s first tasks will be overseeing the transition to one or more companies that will take over Tennessee’s testing program beginning next school year. McQueen ordered a new request for testing proposals after a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s TNReady assessment under current vendor Questar and previous vendor Measurement Inc. Questar officials say they plan to pursue the state’s contract again.

She’ll also work with the governor’s office to allocate resources for education in accordance with the first state budget pounded out by Lee and the legislature. For instance, the governor-elect said frequently he wants a greater emphasis in career and technical education in schools — an idea that is popular with legislators. But legislators also want money to hire more law enforcement officers to police schools. And despite increased allocations for teacher pay, salaries for the state’s educators continue to trail the national average.


New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.