Following the money

Looking to curb absenteeism, other chronic problems, Memphis invests in data specialists with Gates money

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County Schools leaders brainstorm factors behind chronic absenteeism with a data analyst from Seeding Success.

Why are some students consistently absent?

That’s the question more than 30 local school leaders were trying to answer when they gathered last week around tables in a sunlit conference room in Memphis.

Barton Thorne, the principal at Cordova High School, had more than a dozen reasons written down on sticky notes: homelessness, suspensions, and transportation, among them.

Solving problems like chronic absenteeism and disparities in graduation rates and academic progress is the goal of the nearly $1 million philanthropic dollars earmarked for 15 Shelby County schools, including Cordova High. The money will put data analysts inside select middle and high schools, with the intent of helping school leaders make data-driven decisions.

“It’s like principals get [test] results at the end of the year, and they say, ‘Ok, this went well and this went poorly, now on to the next year,’” said Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, a Memphis non-profit that led last week’s training and overseeing the data effort. “We should actually figure out why something went well and build on that data throughout the year.”

The idea behind the project is to track current eighth- and ninth-graders at the schools over a 24-month period. The data analysts will work with principals and assistant principals to come up with factors that inhibit student success, such as being chronically out-of-school due to transportation issues. Together, they will come up with a plan to combat the issue, and then they will track the students to see if the plan works.

“The day-to-day work of school leaders is most often about solving the problems of today,” Sturgis said. “The bigger strategy work is secondary, if it happens at all. We’re not bringing in new interventions to the schools, but we are bringing in people to help schools do that long-term strategy work.”

Seeding Success, which is part of the StriveTogether national network of cradle-to-career collective impact organizations, is placing five data analysts in the schools. The schools were selected by Shelby County Schools and grouped by feeder pattern or location. Analysts will serve:

  • Germantown High School, Germantown Middle School, Avon Lenox High School
  • Central High School, White Station High School, Bellevue Middle School
  • Kingsbury High School, Bolton High School,Kingsbury Middle School
  • Overton High School, Ridgeway High School, Ridgeway Middle School
  • Highland Oaks Middle School, Southwind High School, Cordova High School

More than half a million in funding is coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of a larger $92 million pledge to back various educational initiatives, and $300,000 is coming from International Paper, a Memphis-based Fortune 500 company. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

International Paper will also be providing technical support for the schools and data team, Sturgis said, adding that Shelby County Schools has a new data system, but more support is needed to help schools best use it. 

Felicia Everson-Tuggle, director of instructional leadership at Shelby County Schools, is heading up the partnership from the district side. She told the principals and assistant principals gathered last week that the goal of the project is to work with Seeding Success to monitor progress toward school goals throughout the year.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Seeding Success and International Paper leaders pose with a check for $300,000.

“What are the next goals for improvement? What needs to be adjusted or changed?” Everson-Tuggle asked the group that had gathered for the training. “We don’t want this to just be a check. We want to make sure all of our schools are high-performing next year.”

If this partnership goes well, the hope is to expand it to additional Shelby County schools, Seeding Success leaders said.

Courtney Robinson, who is managing the project for Seeding Success, echoed Everson-Tuggle by telling the group that this partnership will only work with buy-in from school leaders.

“We really want [the data analysts] to be an Aspirin, not a headache,” Robinson said during the meeting. “They will support you all around the data piece and think with you about factors that affect you all every day.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.