Building Better Schools

How convincing teachers they could be ‘great’ helped transform this Indianapolis school

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post

A Speedway elementary school that was once known as the worst school in the its district was honored today for academic performance by the Indiana Department of Education.

Allison Elementary School was one of two schools recognized as Indiana’s 2016 National Title I Distinguished Schools — an honor that principal Jay Bedwell attributes to a positive school culture.

“It took me three years to change the culture in the building so that these teachers actually understood that they were capable of being great teachers,” said Bedwell who came to the school more than a decade ago when it was known as the worst of Speedway’s four elementary schools. Students would transfer to other schools, it was failing academically and the police were regularly called about discipline issues, he said.

The school faces challenges: More than 71 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance and more than one in five students are learning English.

But during Bedwell’s time as principal, the school got a new influx of funding from the federal government, and he has used most of that money for tools to track student progress and to hire an instructional coach and three instructional assistants who work with small groups of kids to get them up to speed.

That work is paying off: Despite its challenges, the school is thriving, and it exceeds the state and district average passing rate on the ISTEP. Assistant Superintendent Patti Bock said that the high test scores are particularly impressive because both students who are behind and those who are excelling show strong improvement.

“I know that those teachers work really hard,” Bock said. “It doesn’t matter what day you walk through that school. You are going to see loving, caring people and kids excited that they can do the work.”

In some ways, Allison is a small town school in the midst of a big city, said Bock.

Speedway is such a geographically compact district that instead of taking buses, students walk or drive the short distance to school. There are regular family nights at the school, and younger students know who their teachers will be in later grades.

In addition to Allison, Gavit Middle and High School in Hammond was also honored by the state today for its work closing the achievement gap.

“I am honored to recognize two exceptional schools today for their commitment to providing high-quality support and instruction to Hoosier students,” said Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.  “I applaud the hard work of the dedicated educators, students and families of Allison Elementary and Gavit Middle/High School on this distinguished achievement.”

race in the classroom

‘Do you see me?’ Success Academy theater teacher gives fourth-graders a voice on police violence

Success Academy student Gregory Hannah, one of the performers

In the days and weeks after last July’s police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, teachers across New York grappled with how to talk about race and police violence. But for Sentell Harper, a theater teacher at Success Academy Bronx 2, those conversations had started long before.

CNN recently interviewed Harper about a spoken-word piece he created for his fourth-grade students to perform about what it means to be black and male in America. Harper, who just finished his fourth year teaching at Success, said that after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, he wanted to check in with his students.

“I got my group of boys together, and I said, ‘Today, we’re going to talk about race,'” Harper told CNN. “And they had so much to say. They started telling me stories about their fathers and their brothers, and about dealing with racism — things that I never knew that these young boys went through.”

Inspired by their stories, he created a performance called “Alternative Names for Black Boys,” drawing on poems by Danez Smith, Tupac Shakur and Langston Hughes.

Wearing gray hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was killed while wearing one, the boys take turns naming black men and boys who have been killed: Freddie, Michael, Philando, Tamir. The list goes on.

Despite the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Harper says honesty is essential for him as a teacher. “Our kids are aware of race and want to talk about it,” he wrote in a post on Success Academy’s website. “As a black male myself, I knew I wanted to foster conversation between my students and within the school community.”

Click below to watch the performance.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.