Who Is In Charge

School safety experts to lawmakers: Prevention is vital

The Arapahoe High School shootings fresh in their minds, members of the legislative education committees got a briefing on school safety Wednesday.

Safety experts from the state and two school districts, plus a veteran school resource officer, discussed the issue and took questions from lawmakers. Panel members generally agreed that schools are more secure and better able to respond to threats than they were before the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999.

They also agreed that much work needs to be done on identifying threats before incidents happen and on improving mental health services for troubled students.

“Colorado is a national leader” in school security, said Chief Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. The chief challenge for schools is making time for necessary training and drills. “Time is the most scarce resource,” she said.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, asked what was being done to involve students in school safety. “We are really trying to draw out from students what they would want,” said Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. She surveys indicate that students want more safety drills.

Lawmakers asked Sgt. Douglas Ross, a Longmont Police school resource officer, about the training and possible arming of school security guards and other staff. He also was asked if it’s helpful for schools to use police officers who aren’t necessarily trained as resource officers.

“We’re open to being as creative as we can,” Ross said. But he cautioned that school personnel who carry guns would need extensive training and that resource officers who are trained to work with students are more valuable than police who have no such special preparation.

“Our reservation would be, can we hire the correct people and be able to provide initial and ongoing training?” Ross said.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, asked if school employees should carry Mace or pepper spray.

Julie Bolding, a Jeffco school psychologist, replied, “Items that come into schools often change hands. … I would just have the fear that students would misuse that object.”

Samantha Haviland, Denver Public Schools director of counseling support services, said arming teachers is “a reaction, but that’s not going to stop what’s going on in our schools.” More important, she said, “it’s not possible for us to ignore the fact that we are looking at prevention.”

The only school safety bill introduced so far this session is Senate Bill 14-002, which would provide funding for the Safe2tell program and move it into the attorney general’s office.

The program provides a way for students to anonymously provide tips about potential threats. Coffman said reports about depression and suicide now outnumber school threats on Safe2tell.

New Leadership

Coaching will be key as Griffin adds two from Memphis iZone to state district team

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin greets Alethea Henry (right) at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

After more than 20 years in traditional Memphis schools, Alethea Henry is making the leap to the state’s controversial turnaround district and will bring with her lessons learned from Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone.

But Henry is clear that her switch in allegiance is mostly to follow the iZone’s former leader and new Achievement School District chief – Sharon Griffin. Shelby County Schools iZone is a group of 24 low-performing schools within Memphis’ traditional district that won praise for improving student test scores under Griffin.

“I decided to join the ASD…primarily because of the opportunity to serve under the awesome leadership and tutelage of Dr. Sharon Griffin,” said Henry, who is now in charge of support teams for the state district. “My tenure in the iZone afforded me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Fortunately, I have been able to apply those lessons learned in my new role with ASD.”

ASD leadership team and salaries

  • Sharon Griffin, ASD chief, $180,000
  • Tonye Smith McBride, chief of school improvement/accountability, $125,004
  • Lisa Settle, chief of operations and culture/climate, $114,996
  • Robert White, chief of communications/external affairs, $114,996
  • Alethea Henry, lead instructional support director, $105,000

Tonye Smith McBride is also joining the state district’s leadership team after decades in Memphis’ traditional district. McBride and Henry coached iZone principals and educators alongside Griffin. Appointing two people with experience coaching administrators offers a clue to Griffin’s strategy of working with teachers and principals to improve student performance.

Schools in the iZone have outpaced progress of those run by the state, which have struggled to show academic improvement. The Achievement School District – now comprising 30 schools, most of them in Memphis – was launched in 2012 to transform the state’s worst performing schools by converting them to charter schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Griffin have said that the state district needs more consistency from school to school, and McBride will lead the charge to share best practices across charter operators.

“As part of the iZone, I served as a principal, instructional leadership director and eventually director of school improvement and accountability for the entirety of SCS,” McBride said. “When you combine all of these together, the work is very much the same…just lots more of it.”

McBride said her new role will focus on ensuring charter operators are following federal and state laws. Similar to her previous roles in Shelby County, McBride will oversee the district’s Special Education team, support career and technical education, and create system-wide “practices to meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

McBride coached dozens of iZone principals – including the principal of Trezevant High School, a school within the iZone where reports of improper grade changing launched an ongoing investigation within Shelby County high schools. McBride was not implicated in grade changing and a team of outside investigators found no evidence that she was involved in any other wrongdoing.

Griffin told Chalkbeat she’s confident McBride is up for the steep challenge of improving state-run schools. Recent test scores remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school.

“When she was a principal, Chief McBride knew how to take a school from a low-performing school to the next phase,” Griffin said.

For Henry, some of her lessons learned include establishing deep support for teachers, something Griffin said educators within the state district have told her was lacking. Henry will focus on improving teacher training and is in charge of creating a strategic plan for “addressing instructional needs across the entire ASD portfolio,” she said.

“Just like every child is different, so are teachers and schools,” Henry said. “Support must be intentional and meet the unique needs of the people being supported. It is no one’s job to ‘fix’ teachers.”

The remaining team members, Robert White and Lisa Settle, have been in state-run leadership for years, and Griffin said she was excited for the context and experience they will bring.

White will continue to work on bettering the district’s historically stormy relationship with its communities – and will focus on telling the district’s story of a new era under Griffin’s leadership.

Settle has been with the turnaround district since the beginning. She moved from the position of chief performance officer, where she made sure charter operators followed federal and state rules, to the chief of operations and culture/climate. Griffin said Settle will now oversee the district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools and focus on building maintenance. Many of the achievement district’s school buildings are leased from Shelby County Schools and need repair.

“I’m still with the district because we aren’t finished – there’s work still to do,” Settle said. “One thing that is changing now is the way we view support needed. We were an authorizer of charter schools, and we still are, but there are traditional district functions we need to provide like a focus on academics, and support around building maintenance.”

Still missing from Griffin’s team is a second in command. When Griffin was hired in April, the state Department of Education announced that it would also “soon add a leader to oversee the development and support of high-quality public charter schools, and this role will work closely with Dr. Griffin to support the portfolio of charter operators serving schools in the Achievement School District.”

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the department, said the right person hasn’t been found for the role yet, and they are still actively seeking candidates.

Griffin acknowledged that the current team will have to do more with less. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed to cut costs, and a new leadership team was brought in under then-superintendent Malika Anderson. Griffin’s team of four is significantly smaller than that of Anderson.

“I believe we have the right people in place and skill set to impact student achievement,” Griffin said. “But there is added responsibility for us because our team is smaller.”

Verna Ruffin, the turnaround district’s chief academic officer, was recently hired as superintendent of a school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, White said. Six former members of central office staff took positions with charter operators within the turnaround district or pursued other opportunities after the restructure last year.

Griffin said now that the new team is in place, they can get to work.

“I have to make some changes while hitting the ground,” Griffin said. “I needed people who understood the context and could get things done.”

pushing back

McQueen calls superintendents’ request to pause state testing ‘illegal and inconsistent with our values’

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pens a letter in response to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.

“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”

Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.

However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.

McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.

“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”

McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.

McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.

“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.

Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below: