Student Voice

Students walk out of Memphis school demanding to know why principal and teacher were fired

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School protest administrators firing a teacher and principal.

About 30 students walked out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning, three months after school administrators fired the principal, and days after firing a beloved teacher.

Unease has filled the North Memphis charter school since the staffing changes. Teachers have quit, and students and parents do not believe they have received clear answers from administrators about the firings.

According to internal emails, principal Reginald Williams was fired because of the school’s poor performance on 2018 state tests — the same computerized test state lawmakers tried to block from negatively impacting teachers, students, and schools after major technical glitches.

Three student leaders gathered parent permission slips from classmates and walked out shortly after 9 a.m. with chants of “We want answers!” and “We want justice!” But teachers discouraged others from following, students said, while administrators lined the hallways and doors. Eventually, more students joined in protest as school leaders called an assembly to address student concerns. Student leaders say they still don’t have the answers they were looking for.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, Kiahna Noel, Semaj Buckhalter, and Markayla Crawford led a student protest at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning.

“When he was our principal, the school was OK. The school was good. And now we don’t have a principal and the school is going up in chaos,” said Cherelle Bledsoe, a senior who has attended the school since sixth grade. “Teachers are quitting because it’s unprofessional, because it’s not organized.”

“He was a good principal,” said Tamia Kerr, a senior who came back to Memphis Academy on Tuesday morning for the protest after transferring to another high school. “They made it sound like he up and left, but they fired him.”

Talya Garrett, one of the interim co-principals, declined to comment on the students’ concerns. Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, said he supported students expressing themselves — even in protest.

“In this world we live in and on a day like today where the vote is so precious, it’s important to hear the voices while still encouraging the continuation of the academic instruction,” he said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Johnson appointed two administrators, Garrett and Trent Watson, to share the responsibility of interim principal after firing Williams. The school serves about 420 students.

Parents and their supporters flooded a board meeting last month, where it was revealed Williams had not resigned, though Johnson said the two had come to a “mutual agreement.” Patricia Ange, an ACT prep teacher, supported Williams at the meeting and was fired Friday.

“She is the best teacher at MAHS, and I’m going to stand my ground for her,” said Kiahna Noel, a senior who organized the protest. “She brought our ACT scores up, she encourages people who want to drop out to continue. Half of these kids going to college because of Ms. Ange, and she going to get fired for speaking her mind? That’s not right.”

When Chalkbeat asked about claims of teachers locking doors and asked for details about teachers and students leaving for other schools, Johnson directed questions to the network’s lawyer, Florence Johnson. She said no teachers have quit and no students have withdrawn. She declined to respond to the students’ allegations.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Nicole Smith shares text messages from her daughter, which prompted her to come to the school.

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift held a small protest at the school earlier Tuesday morning and returned when leaders heard students had planned a walkout. Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director, has a granddaughter at the school, and said Memphis Lift wants Ange and Williams to come back to the school and for Johnson to be fired.

“We’re going to stand out here every day until every parent knows what’s going on,” she told one mother dropping off her student at the school.

Nicole Smith came to the school after her daughter texted her that students were being held in class, “so we won’t be heard because so many kids asking for answers.” If things don’t change soon, she plans to withdraw her daughter, a senior, from the school.

“If the top is good and strong, everybody else will be strong,” Smith said. “When you have a weak leader, everything else will fall. He [Williams] was a great leader because he knew how to be firm and a good educator at the same time.”

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.