big decision ahead

Aspire Memphis’s future in question as board weighs paths forward

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Aspire's Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.

Facing a roughly $2 million operating deficit and lagging academic progress, a California-based charter organization that runs four schools in Memphis is reconsidering its future in the city — even floating the possibility of pulling out of the area altogether.

At a public meeting on Friday, Aspire’s national board discussed with its Memphis staff four possible scenarios for moving forward. Board chair Jonathan Garfinkel said that changes are anticipated, given the budget deficit and the fact that academic “results have not been what we’ve hoped.”

As a result, Aspire could cease to oversee its four Memphis schools, which serve some 1,600 students in total. This wouldn’t mean the schools would close, but that the governance of the school would change. A task force — composed of board members, Aspire staff in Memphis and consultants — came up with the following four possible paths forward, though Garfinkel said more possibilities could be considered.

  • Memphis remains an Aspire region with additional supports and a plan to close the financial gap.
  • Memphis becomes an Aspire “franchise,” keeping the name and core approach and receiving some supports, like curriculum and coaching, but operates as a separate nonprofit with significantly more autonomy.
  • The four Memphis schools become a standalone charter network with their own central office and fundraising function.
  • The four schools team up with one or more existing local school district or charter network.

If any changes are made, they wouldn’t go into place until after this school year. Garfinkel emphasized that no decisions have been made, and the task force would use Friday’s conversation to steer its board recommendations, slated for January.

During an emotional conversation, local Memphis staff pushed back Friday on the idea that the Memphis operation disaffiliate or spin-off from the national network. Memphis principals Steven Ward and Monique Cincore both said Aspire has had a big impact on their lives and the families they serve.

“Aspire has renewed my faith in education,” Cincore said. “It’s helped me know that there’s a better way to do this work. For that to potentially go away, that brings great sadness to me and my families.”

Aspire Memphis Superintendent Nickalous Manning, pointing toward recent gains in enrollment and test scores, asked for more time before any changes occur.

“Time is of the essence, and not infinite, and neither are resources,” said Manning, a longtime Memphis educator in his first year as leader of Aspire Memphis. “But we need to be thoughtful about knee-jerk dramatic change. We see evidence, though we want to move faster, that we’re seeing some real traction with student growth.”

Manning added that Aspire Memphis’ total operating budget was more than $20 million, and that given time to crunch the numbers and apply for grants, his team might be able to reduce the deficit caused by lower-than-expected enrollment.

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

Casey Hoffman, director of growth and strategy with the national Aspire organization, said that the task force identified several issues between local staff and the national network: communication with the California-based central office, regional fees, and the desire for more local control.

Aspire Memphis currently pays the national network about $800,000 in home office support, covering the salaries of seven Memphis-based employees. The Memphis group also pays a regional fee of $1.3 million. If the group disaffiliated from the national organization, some of those fees would disappear, but so would the supports.

Aspire originally envisioned the Memphis expansion to consist of 10 or more schools, but the group has only opened four schools in the region since 2013.

The charter network was one of the first outside groups recruited to Memphis to join the state-run Achievement School District five years ago. That represents Aspire’s only growth outside of California. Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and runs 36 schools there.

The network took over two Memphis schools in 2013, and grew to three schools the following year as part of the state-run district, which sought to take over schools academically in the bottom 5 percent and vault them to top performers in five years. As a whole, the district has fallen dramatically short of that goal as it’s struggled to move the needle on student achievement and has closed some schools due to low enrollment.

Aspire Coleman Middle School is one of only nine schools in the Achievement School District that is no longer in the bottom 5 percent of schools, according to the state Department of Education. Aspire Hanley Elementary School also improved enough last year to come off of the state’s list of troubled schools, called the “priority list.”

Aspire also runs Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school, under the local Shelby County Schools. This year, the charter network applied with the district to open its second a middle school, but the local school board and the state Board of Education rejected its application.

Mala Batra, interim chief executive officer with the national Aspire organization, said that prior to the meeting the two Memphis districts hadn’t been contacted on the potential changes.

Stephen Ward, in his second year as principal at Aspire Hanley Middle School, said he was attracted to the job specifically because it was with Aspire, and that distancing from the national charter organization would be potentially devastating for his community.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school, is housed in a newly renovated furniture store.

“Yes, we were supposed to be much larger than we are, but there are advantages,” Ward said. “This is our commitment to stay this size and get good. I have four generations of families in my schools that have option to go elsewhere, but they believe in what we’re doing and in the growth of kids. Even if the physical building is there and the same, I fear their confidence is going to go away without the Aspire name recognition.”

Beth Hunkapiller – an Aspire board member and former director of charter schools at the California Department of Education – emphasized that she believed the Memphis schools had made encouraging progress in a tough turnaround environment.

“There’s enormous debate around how fast turnaround work is expected to go, and I see growth here,” Hunkapiller said, adding that she thought both the option to spin-off and the option to merge with a different charter group would be “destructive and costly.”

Batra said the decision would come down to what’s best for Memphis students. “We know we have to make trade-offs,” she said at the close of the meeting. “And I don’t think we can make a decision without knowing how we can best serve kids moving forward.”

You can view the task force update presentation below:

Correction: A previous version of a photo caption said Aspire East Academy was housed in a former car dealership. It is located in a former furniture store.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”