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.”

the return

An innovative elementary school — a product of Denver education reform — tries to get back to normal post-strike

PHOTO: Centennial Elementary
Teachers last year at Centennial Elementary, which reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning school.

Nic Savinar tried to maintain a measure of normalcy for three days in her fifth grade classroom at Centennial Elementary School in northwest Denver, even as her students asked awkward questions about why she was still there when most teachers were out.

Walking in the door, she had a fleeting thought that someone from outside the school community might join the picket line and lash out at her. Her fellow teachers marching in the cold lent nothing but support, sending her texts throughout the day checking in.

Then not long after 6 a.m. Thursday, word started getting around that the Denver teacher strike was over. Principal Laura Munro’s phone blew up after her morning Crossfit workout. Munro ended up getting to school late because excited teachers kept texting her.

With the three-day strike about teacher pay ending with a tentative deal that gave both sides reason to feel good, Denver schools spent Thursday in a strange in-between place as substitutes and central office staff fill-ins reported for duty and striking teachers returned.

The labor action and its sudden conclusion posed a test for the 147 district-run schools affected by the strike and the 71,000 students in grades K-12 who attend them. Centennial just a few years ago was at risk of closure due to persistently poor academic performance. The school started to turn around after it reinvented itself in 2013 as an expeditionary school, where teachers in each grade weave a year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

The school, in a gentrified neighborhood in a city that has become less affordable for families and teachers alike, would not exist in its current form without the kind of education reform that has gained Denver both a national reputation and opposition from the union and its allies.

“We have worked really hard to build a positive and trusting culture,” said Munro, who has been principal for eight years. “Even that being said, trying times can make any situation difficult.”

Of the 32 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators at Centennial covered by the teachers contract, all but six took part in the strike on Monday, Munro said. One teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, and a nurse came back Wednesday, she said.

Those are higher strike participation figures than in the district as a whole. Between 56 and 58 percent of teachers were out each day, Denver Public Schools has said.

Savinar was among those Centennial teachers who remained in the classroom. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the union’s opposition to many aspects of ProComp, the once-promising pay-for-performance system that was the subject of negotiations.

Savinar recently took maternity leave, much of it unpaid. She and her husband crunched the numbers —  taking into account that teachers strikes typically last a week — and concluded that foregoing a paycheck, as striking teachers must do, was not something they could afford.

The irony is not lost on Savinar: She couldn’t afford to strike to improve her salary prospects.

“There was a lot of thought behind it, and it was definitely a financial decision,” she said, pointing out that her Centennial colleagues who remained in classrooms all have children 1 or younger. “It was a very challenging decision for every single person, I’m sure.”

A ninth-year teacher, Savinar left a job in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools to join Centennial four years ago. She said she was won over by the people and by expeditionary learning.

The school has a vegetable garden, an outdoor classroom with log benches, and a devoted corps of parent volunteers. For a recent lesson on biodiversity, Savinar took her students to Denver Botanic Gardens to visit a rainforest exhibit. They learned about different habitats and species of plants. Students who are now working on writing first-person narratives written from an animal’s perspective, like a jaguar or an exotic bird that makes its home in the lush canopy.

That a district-run public school would offer a model like expeditionary learning is unusual, and it’s part of Denver Public Schools’ philosophy of offering families a variety of school choices.

Centennial is also an innovation school, which means it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract. That allows for a much longer school day, for one. The opening bell rings at 8 a.m. and dismissal is at 3:45 p.m., with an 80-minute enrichment period.

Savinar is a “teacher-leader,” spending part of her time teaching and part of it coaching other teachers — another initiative that other U.S. school districts look to Denver to emulate.

Savinar said her support for the union stance during ProComp bargaining was rooted mostly in supporting an increase in all teachers’ base pay and in cost-of-living increases. She said she loves the flexibility that innovation status affords teachers and students both.

“It’s all relative, I guess,” she said. “Completely depends on what teachers are wanting in their school community.”

During the strike, Munro kept a detailed spreadsheet of classroom assignments, using a combination of regular teachers, substitutes, central office staff temporarily reassigned to schools, and her own preschool teachers who were available because DPS shut its preschools.

All but two classrooms were covered by certified teaching staff during the strike, she said.

Because of the timing of the tentative agreement, Thursday was more chaotic than when teachers were on strike, she said. Although all the striking teachers returned, the school retained a few substitutes to honor their commitments. Central office staff helped cover classrooms until late-arriving teachers got to work, then went back to their regular jobs.

“People had been gone three days and were just trying to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Savinar said. “People were scrambling a little bit because teachers are always prepared for their students, and they were feeling unprepared, coming into I am not sure what.”

Centennial will move on from the disruption of the strike at a time it faces its owns challenges. What was once a predominantly Latino student population has grown whiter and wealthier, driven by neighborhood changes and the appeal of expeditionary learning.

Having fewer students whose families live in poverty cost Centennial its Title I status, and the extra funding that goes with it. Munro said school officials knew it was coming and planned accordingly, accounting for the lost revenue over a two-year period and lessening the blow.

The older grades at Centennial are more diverse than kindergarten and the earlier grades, so as a fifth-grade teacher Savinar has a more diverse class than most.  

Next up, her students will begin a module on inequality. She and a returning colleague struck upon an idea Thursday: including a discussion about the issues underlying the strike. It’s in keeping with expeditionary learning’s aspiration to connect learning to real-world events.

So in the near future, Nic Savinar’s fifth-grade students at Centennial Elementary could talk about the issues that kept their teacher in school while her colleagues picketed outside.

teacher prep

Report: Tennessee’s teacher prep programs are doing a better job, but graduating fewer educators

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Oliver Morrison
Teacher candidates undergo training through Memphis Teacher Residency in 2014. The nontraditional training program is among eight in Tennessee that scored in the top tier on the State Board of Education's latest report card.

Tennessee’s teacher training programs improved or maintained their scores on a report card released Friday, even as the number of would-be educators they graduated dipped for a third straight year.

Eight of the state’s 40 programs received the top overall score in 2018, while seven others moved up one notch to earn the second-highest scores. None of the programs saw their overall ratings decrease on the four-point scale, with 4 being the best.

Nontraditional training programs continued to excel, with Memphis Teacher Residency, Teach for America in Memphis and Nashville, and the New Teacher Project in Nashville all achieving a top ranking.

Among traditional programs, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Union University in Jackson, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville maintained their top scores, while Christian Brothers University in Memphis broke into the top tier as well.

“We’re now seeing a greater distribution of top scores” among traditional and nontraditional programs, said Sara Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education.

That’s important because university-based programs produce about 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

The State Board issues its annual report card to gauge how well programs are preparing candidates for the classroom and whether they’re meeting the needs of school districts and the goals of the state. Criteria includes a profile of graduates over the past three years, their placement and retention in Tennessee public schools, and their observation and growth scores on their evaluations on the job.

The latest report card is the third under a redesigned grading system that launched after a 2016 report said most of the state’s training programs weren’t equipping teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms. It was a big red flag because the quality of teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

“We have seen an improvement in overall scores year after year,” said Morrison, noting that more first-year teachers are being retained and are helping their students show gains on state standardized tests.

Also encouraging: More recent graduates were prepared for teaching positions that districts struggle to fill every year, including English as a Second Language, Spanish, special education, high school math, and high school science.

On the flipside, the report card showed a gradual decline in the number of teacher candidates completing their training programs.

That troubling trend comes as the state braces for half of its 65,000 teachers to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Every program is looking to improve their recruitment strategies,” said Amy Owen, the board’s policy director, who spoke with reporters on the eve of the report’s release.

Another continued concern is lagging diversity among teacher candidates. Only 15 percent are people of color, compared with 35 percent of the state’s student population — a challenge since research shows that students of color are more likely to succeed academically when taught by teachers of color.

Among the report card’s other highlights, Tennessee Tech University, one of the state’s largest teacher training programs, improved its overall score to reach the second-highest rating. So did Belmont University, King University, Maryville College, Milligan College, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Western Governors University.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Morrison is executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

The University of Memphis maintained its score in the second-highest tier, as did Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, and Middle Tennessee State. All three are among the state’s largest training programs.

Morrison applauded programs for increasingly aligning their training to the state’s newest academic standards, especially in the area of literacy, and for collaborating more with nearby school districts to meet their needs.

“Some programs have even begun implementing dual-certification models so that their candidates are prepared to teach both an area like elementary education and either special education or English as a Second Language,” she said. “The result is a win-win situation, with teachers being more prepared and in-demand, districts having ready access to the educators they need, and education preparation providers improving on the state report card.”

You can view the full report card here and find previous report cards here.