Growing 'family'

As Memphis expands its efforts to improve schools, one model is about to double in size

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addressed Manor Lake Elementary parents in March about upcoming changes.

As a mother of three who has lived in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood for almost 25 years, Regina Mosley sees the area high school as an anchor in the midst of a rapidly changing education landscape.

The high-performing Whitehaven High school is also the anchor of the Empowerment Zone, one of Shelby County Schools’ newest intervention programs. It will more than double in size by adding six schools this fall.

The Empowerment Zone, which will enter its third year in August, is a neighborhood-centric approach to improve schools as the district seeks to include a larger group of people who are committed to seeing the school do well.

Mosley hopes the school improvement model will make the 107-year-old school shine even more.

“There’s no other foundation I’ve seen that stands the test of time because of the unity of the people: alumni, teachers, students, parents, everybody is involved,” said Mosley, who is also a parent leader for area schools.

Over the last eight years, Tennessee has worked to improve performance at its struggling schools, and state test scores have improved as a result — especially in Memphis, where most students are from low-income families. The results of the Empowerment Zone have been promising, but some are worried about the next phase, when more elementary schools will be added in the coming school year. All but one school in the zone saw academic growth this school year.

Created in 2016, the Empowerment Zone was meant to shield a cluster of low-performing schools in Whitehaven from takeover by the state. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leaned on Vincent Hunter, who has been principal of Whitehaven High for 14 years, to collaborate across schools on lesson plans so teachers could learn from each other. Hunter also brought in college-student tutors to reduce the teacher-to-student ratio through a partnership with Peer Power and the University of Memphis.

Teachers are offered signing bonuses and have an extra set of academic coaches who specialize in their grade levels. Before entering the Empowerment Zone, Hunter invites principals into team planning across the zone so they can understand how it works.

The schools are all governed by the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone Leadership Council, which is composed of about 30 parents, teachers, students, and community members who meet monthly to go over reports about student enrollment and test scores, and to strategize.

“That creates a sense of unity for us. We want to always be viewed as family. Plus it’s personal to me,” said Hunter, a Whitehaven high graduate who started teaching at his alma mater in 1994. About 45 staff members across the zone are also graduates of the neighborhood high school, he said.

Whitehaven Empowerment Zone schools by year

  • 2016-17: Whitehaven High, Havenview Middle
  • 2017-18: Holmes Road Elementary, A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • 2018-19: Geeter K-8 (formerly Geeter Middle and Manor Lake Elementary), Whitehaven Elementary, Oakshire Elementary, Robert R. Church Elementary, and John P. Freeman Elementary

The community involvement appears to be paying off. Havenview Middle School, the first to enter the Empowerment Zone, improved about five percentage points beyond the bottom 3 percent of the state’s low-performing schools in one year. A. Maceo Walker Middle School, which made its first appearance on the state’s priority list in 2014, is almost out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state.

Parents are noticing, and so is the state. Enrollment is up as much as 21 percent at Havenview Middle since last school year. The Tennessee Department of Education approved the district’s proposal to fold Geeter Middle into the zone when it released its plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools.

“We know that strategy works, there’s no question about that,” said Hopson, who is also a Whitehaven high graduate.

But some teachers and administrators are worried about the next phase of the project. Holmes Road Elementary, the first elementary to join the zone, performed poorly on an exam given earlier this year. Yet the Empowerment Zone is set to add five elementary schools this fall, two of which are already performing well on state tests.

Hopson attributed Holmes Road’s first-year challenges to staffing vacancies when it was “fresh-started.” When a principal is hired, that person can bring on all new teachers and staff. If their evaluation scores are low, or the former employees aren’t offered jobs, they can be assigned to other schools. Some classrooms were covered by temporary teachers who have been reassigned from other schools.

Hunter, the executive principal over the Empowerment Zone, said the public shouldn’t put too much stock in the early progress reports.

“TNReady is the true measuring stick,” he said of the state’s standardized test. Results from this year’s test are expected in the fall.

Eddie Jones, the president of the zone’s leadership council, said it was too soon to tell if the troubles at Holmes Road were growing pains, or were a flaw in the model.

“They just got there. You haven’t had an opportunity to see if it’s working or it’s not,” Jones said.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to expand the lessons learned in the iZone.

Three of the schools being added to the zone next year — Geeter K-8, Robert R. Church Elementary, and Oakshire Elementary — have been fresh started. That strategy has worked well for the Innovation Zone, the flagship program run by the district that has outpaced state schools in boosting test scores — but only if the number of teachers leaving isn’t too high.

Some teachers thought it was too early to discuss a fresh start because they said they were promised extra support.

“The promise wasn’t kept,” said Annette Harris, a teacher who opted to retire instead of re-apply for her job. “What the new people are going to receive is what we were promised,” she said about the coaching.

Hopson said additional teacher coaching at those schools was planned, but after looking closely at testing data, the leadership council and district leaders moved up the timeline for a fresh start.

“Knowing where the data was last year, the community felt like we didn’t have time to figure out if we needed to go all in on the treatment,” he said. “The data suggested that we needed to be more aggressive.”

But Hunter said the only advice promised before schools entered his program was to principals. Additional teacher coaching, he said, is reserved for after the staffing changes. The intent is not a full turnover, he said, but only 35 of 125 teachers have been retained so far at the three schools that have been fresh started for the fall.

“We want the children in those particular settings to have a familiar face they’re used to seeing so they feel comfortable,” he said.

The Empowerment Zone’s scope is expanding next year beyond schools in the high school’s feeder pattern. Some of the schools being added send students on to Fairley High, a state-run charter school. One of those is Geeter Middle, which will become a K-8 school when Manor Lake Elementary students are added to it next year.

Hunter was open about his intentions to keep students out of the state-run district during a meeting in March with parents and teachers at Manor Lake.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the Achievement School District,” he said.

“All they know is the child did not perform well on a test. They don’t understand that the child might not have eaten last night,” he said. “None of those things show up in a number, and it’s totally not fair.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.