building woes

One of Tennessee’s highest-performing turnaround schools remains closed three weeks after heating issues began

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Elementary School is back in its original building after roof damage caused the school's students to relocate last year. However, school has been out for three weeks due to heating issues.

Meredith Reynolds knows how hard her stepdaughter worked to get caught up in school. But now that Allison, who is in fourth grade, has missed three weeks of class due to heating issues, Reynolds is worried her stepdaughter will fall behind once again.

“This year, she is missing so much school because of the heat problem,” Reynolds said. “Allison was behind in school, and she and her father worked so hard to get her caught up. All of this is affecting her. We can’t wait until they get the school open.”

This is the third week that Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, one of the highest performers in Tennessee’s turnaround district, has been out of class after a cold snap put the school’s boiler out of commission.

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and allowing outside charter organizations to run them. For students in the Achievement School District, every day of instruction matters as the school leaders seek to boost lagging student achievement.

Georgian Hills has been a prominent success story for the district – the elementary school not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, Georgian Hills was in the bottom 2 percent of schools. It is one of 13 schools in the Achievement School District that stayed off of the 2018 state list of academically struggling schools.

Parents like Reynolds are worried the long break from school, especially amid the holidays, will reverse some of the progress made at Georgian Hills. The school hasn’t held class since Nov. 13, but Georgian Hills Principal Yolanda Dandridge said parents had the option to come to the school to pick up food and take home school work if they were able.

“Some families are treating this just as an extra holiday break, and I think their kids are going to suffer from it,” Reynolds said. “Are these days going to be made up at end of school year? How are we going to make up for lost time?”

The Achievement School District said in a statement that issues in finding a boiler to replace the 50-year-old defunct one have caused the massive delay. The district eventually found a boiler in Pennsylvania that will work with the building and are shipping it to Memphis.

Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary schools, two co-located schools in the state district, also missed nine days of classes due to similar heating issues but returned to school on Tuesday. The district reported that students will return to Georgian Hills when the boiler is likely replaced next week, but some parents are saying they can’t wait anymore.

Dominique Pruitt attended Georgian Hills when she was in elementary school. Now that her 3-year-old son is old enough for preschool, she enrolled him at her former elementary school. But he hasn’t been able to start classes.

“I was planning on trying to see what I need to do to transfer him, but I haven’t got any information back as of yet,” Pruitt said. “That’s the only school he was zoned to that had a special education classroom for him and I want my son to get support he needs.”

Reynolds’ stepdaughter has been at Georgian Hills since the first-grade, and this isn’t the first time she has missed significant class time due to building issues. Last school year, Georgian Hills students missed the first week of class and spent the entire school year in another building due to roof damage and mold. But this time, Reynolds said it’s time for her family to move on.

“We’re doing everything we can to get her transferred immediately,” said Reynolds, whose stepdaughter is zoned to Georgian Hills. “This is making life hard for our family – my work life has come to a dead stop. So has her academic life. I don’t know why they couldn’t send homework online, or something to keep them daily in school work.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time this year for both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools over the years.

Achievement School District chief Sharon Griffin said in a statement this week that “Shelby County Schools has worked diligently with the ASD through all of the processes involved with locating, purchasing, receiving delivery, and installing the boilers at these school locations.” She added that the school hasn’t been temporarily relocated because of issues finding a potential space in Georgian Hill’s neighborhood of Frayser, and that state law prevents the use of space heaters. 

Griffin added in that she is still seeking to “further engage” with the Shelby County district and other partners on a plan to significantly improve facilities.

Several studies, including two in Tennessee, have found a link between the condition of a school building and student achievement, specifically that students attending school in newer, better facilities score 5 to 17 points higher on standardized tests than those attending in substandard buildings. Another study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of chronic absenteeism.

Griffin said she has had several conversations about facilities with outgoing Shelby County Schools leader Dorsey Hopson this year, but no formal changes have been made to the way the districts manage facilities.

“To put it succinctly, students in our lowest performing schools are also at the bottom of the list when it comes to necessary building renovations required to create a conducive learning environment,” Griffin wrote to Hopson in a letter sent in late September.

This story has been updated with comment from principal Yolanda Dandridge. 

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.