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.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.