counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”

new school

A new school in Bronzeville says a lot about what parents want

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Kindergarten at Bronzeville Classical

The first day of school, Nicole Spicer woke up at 4 a.m., put on a kelly-green blouse that matched her school colors, and was greeting new families at the door by 7:30 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., the founding principal of the new Bronzeville Classical Elementary had run the school leadership gauntlet: encouraging her small cadre of teachers, welcoming jittery students and parents, and throwing an opening-day party complete with a balloon trellis and visits from such VIPs as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Her venti Starbucks coffee had long grown cold. So she headed to the teachers’ lounge to zap it in the microwave before embarking on another tour of the building, a former elementary school that closed under former schools chief Arne Duncan, reopened as a charter, then closed again.

In the school-choice era in Chicago, school buildings can have many incarnations, and 8 West Root Street’s latest says a lot about what parents in and around Bronzeville want. The only new selective enrollment school opening this year, it comes amid amped-up debate about the degree to which test-in schools pick off accelerated learners and middle-class families at the expense of neighborhood programs.

The debate recently has been stoked by reports that paint a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand in individual schools as well as the startling number of open seats in neighborhood schools.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Assistant principal Raven Talley and principal Nicole Spicer

A case study in what a school can look like with robust support, Bronzeville Classical’s deep bench consists of black religious and business leaders from the community around it. A multimillion gut rehab puts its facilities-wise on par with private schools — there are smart boards in classrooms, a new playground and turf area, even a donated pottery kiln. And the principal has ties with the historically black neighborhood, which still really matters in Chicago.

“Bronzeville has always been a part of who I am,” said Spicer, who grew up near 41st and Indiana streets and attended Catholic schools in the area, despite family who were alums of Phillips High School. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”

The opportunity she’s describing is building a school from the ground up, from hiring the staff to prioritizing Spanish-language immersion and music theory to recruiting the students. Since the school was announced last December, Bronzeville Classical has enrolled 80 children in grades K through second, with plans to add a grade each year. It still has 100 students to go to reach its initial goal.

To recruit more families, Spicer is setting up her front office to help families navigate the selective-enrollment process, which includes completing a centralized online application and registering children for a testing appointment at a facility near IIT. There will also be orientations for prospective families, tours, a social media push, and workshops for families, said Assistant Principal Raven Talley. “When you walk into a school, you want to feel and see the community and the culture,” Talley said.

Not everyone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods can attend the school, no matter the supports. That bothers public education organizers like Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. He has long encouraged CPS to stop segregating students by test scores and shower its neighborhood schools with the same resources and attention it gives new schools. “The rest of our babies are left to languish in neighborhood schools that are starved.”

In essence, other schools could use smart boards and Spanish immersion. A balloon trellis wouldn’t hurt.

The parent perspective

Brittany Smith, the parent of a first-grader at Bronzeville Classical, sympathizes with that argument. But, at 27, she’s part of a generation that came up in the choice era, traveling to a magnet school as an elementary student that was near the Indiana border and then attending Whitney Young, the city’s first public magnet high school.

In other words, “I’m used to the idea,” she said.

Smith lives in Bronzeville, just down the street from Ida B. Wells Preparatory, which reported an average kindergarten class size of 38 last year (the district average was 16.9, according to the 2017 Illinois School Report Card.) Put off by the class sizes, she tested her daughter and gained admission into a selective-enrollment school that was a 20-minute drive from her house. When she heard about Bronzeville Classical, which would be less than 5 minutes away, she applied. “I can tell there is a lot of support from the teachers and the principal, and it’s in the neighborhood.”

For many families, the decision to transfer to a new school with no record is not made lightly. There’s no word of mouth and no test score data to compare, though classical schools — which teach a grade level above, focus on language, and usually have strong art and music programs — are consistently among the district’s highest performing.

A gut rehab meant fresh new paint and lockers, but the marble staircase remains

A few days in, both Smith and another parent, Alicia Blais, who lives in McKinley Park, feel encouraged. Smith, who is black, appreciates the diversity of the school (numbers aren’t fully in, but an early measure shows the school at 50 percent black, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent white, with a third of the students qualifying as low-income), the sparkling facility, and the fact that her daughter comes home happy.

Blais, who is white, says Spicer and her assistant principal are working with her to provide the right experience for her daughter, who is highly sensitive. Already, the first grader has really connected with the Spanish teacher. Calling it a “last stop” before moving to the suburbs, Blais said, “We are one of many parents who need this school to work.”

Design from the ground up

The siren call of a new school doesn’t just lure parents. Educators hear it, too. An award-winning reading specialist who formerly served as assistant principal at another classical school, Skinner North, Spicer participated in a highly competitive process for the principalship. It culminated with her speaking in a public forum last spring alongside another finalist.

After getting the job and taking what she describes as a “listening tour” of community organizations, she approached hiring her small staff with the same careful scrutiny: sorting through hundreds of applications to find a diverse roster of candidates. She opted for full-time music, PE, and Spanish in addition to her K-2 classroom teachers, special education teacher, and a counselor. In lieu of full-time art, a nonprofit group will come in and teach one day a week. (An alum of Golden Apple, the prestigious Illinois teacher training program, Spicer said three of her hires share those ties)

For Jessica Lyons, the Spanish teacher, who previously taught in a Catholic school, the chance to build curriculum from the ground up was persuasive. So was Spicer’s vision of earning a Seal of Biliteracy. For her, that means teaching classes completely in Spanish and cultivating a positive mindset around learning languages through books like “La Vaca Que Decía Oink,” about a cow that says oink. “I’ve designed Spanish programs at schools before, but this is an opportunity to really start something from the ground up and have ownership over it.”

Music teacher Reginald Spears has been working in Chicago schools for a decade, most recently at the nearby Doolittle Elementary. He brings with him a vision for a musical curriculum that prepares children for elementary band, or orchestra, complete with sight reading and songwriting. At some schools, music is viewed as a vehicle to teach reading or math, he explains — here, it’s a subject worthy of its own study and exploration.

He also brings training in calm classroom techniques, such as breathing and stretching, that he has shared with his fellow teachers. “I’m excited that this going to be part of the school.”

But despite the gleaming hallways and pottery kiln, Bronzeville Classical is still a public school in Chicago and can’t escape the realities of the district’s ongoing budget crunch. So Spears’ ambitions of a piano lab and a suite of shiny instruments might require some creativity. He plans to start the way teachers across the city do — a crowdsourcing page on the website Donors Choose.org.