New direction

Aspire Memphis plans to spin off into its own charter organization, separate from the California group that founded it

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Aspire students work on a project in March 2015. The four Aspire Memphis schools will transition to a new, independent charter organization.

After months of deliberation, California-based Aspire has decided to spin off its Memphis schools into a new, independent charter school organization.

The four schools – and their 1,600 students – would officially transition at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year if the plan comes to fruition.

Aspire Memphis Superintendent Nickalous Manning would remain the leader of the four schools and work with Aspire to spin them off over the next 12-18 months, Aspire officials announced at a public meeting Thursday held in California.

The Aspire network was one of the first outside charter groups recruited to Memphis to join the state-run Achievement School District five years ago and now runs three schools in the turnaround district. Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and oversees 36 schools there.

Aspire’s board voted unanimously Thursday to pull out of Aspire East Academy, Aspire Coleman Middle School, Aspire Hanley Elementary School, and Aspire Hanley Middle School, and keep them open under a new Memphis-based charter network with its own brand, board, central office, and fundraising arm.

“Nick [Manning] and I see this as the next evolution for the schools and feel excited for what lies ahead,” said Mala Batra, interim chief executive officer with the national Aspire organization. “A big piece of that fits with Nick and his leadership.”

Batra said many factors spurred the decision, including lack of academic progress and the Memphis schools’ slower-than-projected growth. Aspire originally envisioned 10 or more schools in Memphis, but the group has only opened four schools in the region since 2013.

“As we’ve talked about, our academic results are not where we want them to be, where they can and will be,” Batra said.

“We know since we went to Memphis that there is a perception of Aspire and several other organizations as having an outsider status, and we’ve been trying to integrate into that community authentically since we’ve been there,” she added.

Manning told board members that he was confident his local team is up to the task, and that meetings with parents over the last two months about the potential change have been largely positive.

“The locally operated model allows us to be more nimble,” Manning said. “Over the past seven years, our organization has put a tremendous amount of support [into Memphis]. Because of that, we now have the opportunity to move forward in this new work.”

Part of moving forward will be addressing a $2 million operating deficit. But Batra and board members emphasized that they believed the spin-off was the best way for the Memphis schools to become more financially stable. Batra said they had verbal commitments from Memphis-based and national funders to support the new charter school operation.

Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation in Memphis and Aspire board member, said he believes the change might open more doors politically.

“The thinking of some is that this is an outside group and not a group from Memphis that’s really concerned about our kids,” Boyd said. “While I know that’s not true, it’s hard to change perception on the part of some leaders locally. ”

A task force of national and Memphis-based Aspire leaders, as well as outside consultants, was created to analyze the future of Memphis schools and made the recommendation to the board. The green light on the recommendation comes about two months after Aspire’s national board met in Memphis.

At the Nov. 2 meeting, the task force was looking at three other options, including merging the schools with an existing charter organization or creating an Aspire “franchise.”

Batra said on Thursday that after November, the task force’s decision came down to either spinning off or continuing its governance in the Memphis region with major changes. The group zoned in on the spin-off model as the best option, she added.

The recommendation was met without any serious pushback from board members or Aspire staff. Memphis principal Monique Cincore, who participated in the meeting by video, said that during the November visit, she was most concerned about the option of merging into another charter organization.

“As I got additional information on how we can operate, it became clearer to me,” Cincore said. “I love my Aspire team in California… After sitting down, talking, weighing options, and looking at the needs of students here, it helped me to feel better about transitioning.”

Cincore leads Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school, under the local Shelby County Schools. Aspire also runs Coleman Middle School, 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 isn’t the first national charter organization to spin off its turnaround Memphis schools. Memphis Scholars, which runs three schools in the state district, previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies. Project GRAD USA pulled out of Tennessee’s turnaround district and closed its school.

National board chair Jonathan Garfinkel said he was “deeply conflicted” about the decision, but ultimately thought the task force made a compelling case.

“In other situations I’ve seen, leaving a big organization to plan a new one tends to be harder than people think,” Garfinkel said. “It tends to be driven by ego and a sense of independence, and I don’t get the slightest hint of that in this process. The local team came to a point of view that this is the right choice for students and families.”

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.

Chicago mayor's race

Students quiz mayoral candidates about schools and police at Whitney Young High School forum

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidates attended a student-organized forum at Whitney Young High School on Thursday.

The teenage moderators of a Thursday forum at Whitney Young High School may have been inexperienced, but they didn’t go soft on the 11 Chicago mayoral hopefuls who attended, quizzing them on everything from marijuana legalization to school closings and teacher union negotiations.

In particular, students honed in on policing in their communities and schools, something moderator and event organizer Caleb Dunson said reflected their experiences and concerns.

To repeated questions about a proposed $95 million police academy that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to build on the West Side, most of the candidates said they would oppose it — even former police chief Garry McCarthy, who called it “political spending.” The only clear supporters of the academy were Bill Daley and Mendoza, although Mendoza said she would support putting the facility in another neighborhood.

One student at the Near West Side high school asked how the candidates would address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which discipline on campus may set youths on a wayward path. Some students pointed out that many schools on the South and West Sides have more police and security guards than social workers and guidance counselors.  

While Daley largely skirted the policing part of the question, he said hiring more school counselors is a place to start to address students social and emotional needs, not just their safety in schools.

“We’ve got to find a way to afford that, ” he said.

Amara Enyia, a proponent of reducing policing in schools, said many under-resourced schools are “in communities that have neglected for decades.”

All the candidates agreed that they would keep Chicago as a sanctuary city, and would not direct local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. County board President Toni Preckwinkle repeated her vow to dismantle the city’s gang database. Former schools chief Paul Vallas said he would work to rebuild the city’s detective division and establish a witness protection program to deal with Chicago’s low murder clearance rate.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Five of the 11 candidates who attended Thursday’s forum.

When it came to the question of whether they support closing more underenrolled or underperforming schools in Chicago, the candidates were split.

“Only if it made the situation better [for students],” said Gery Chico, an attorney and former school board president.  

Five candidates answered a flat-out “no”: state representative La Shawn K. Ford, former police board president Lori Lightfoot, ex-police chief Gerry McCarthy, state comptroller Susana Mendoza and Preckwinkle.

Former alderman Bob Fioretti punted, answering that “once an elected school board is in place, they can decide.”  

Enyia and Bill Daley pledged not to close schools in a community unless the community decides. John Kozlar said he would “not close, but repurpose schools.” Meanwhile, Vallas said, “Only if the community wants it, and only if there’s a plan to repurpose,” he said.

One student asked about how the candidates would handle contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, which released a 75-point list of demands this week, including a 5 percent raise. Lightfoot praised teachers but said “we can’t negotiate and give away dollars we don’t have.” McCarthy said teachers deserve to be paid more, but had hard words for the teachers union.

“If the CTU spent half as much time putting their efforts into making sure teachers teach, instead of their politics, we’d be in a much better place,” he said.

The candidates all said they would support legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana, which sent cheers through the crowd. Asked if they would support giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote, only Daley said no.

Dunson, who helped organize and moderate the forum, called the event a success. 

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Caleb Dunson, 16.

“Whitney Young is an amazing magnet school, but we have kids coming from some of the most under-resourced, underfunded communities in Chicago. They know what it’s like to feel inequity, and to feel oppression, and I think they were able to accurately speak to their experiences of that,” said Dunson, junior class president.

He said that the exposure to a candidates forum could be important for students later — and inform conversations at home this election cycle.

“Even if you aren’t voting,” said Dunson who at 16 can’t yet vote, “you are going back to your parents and you’re telling them what you saw at this forum.”