Future of Schools

Board debates whether money or academics should determine charter school expansion

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Shelby County Schools board members David Pickler and David Reaves were not happy that the board voted to give a lease to a charter school group with no proven academic record.

The Shelby County Schools board leased a contested building to a new charter school with no academic track record because it was willing to pay more money than a charter school with five years of proven academic results.

The contentious decision brought into sharp relief the need for a coherent district policy that determines which charter schools get first dibs on empty school buildings, board members and the superintendent said Tuesday. With the likelihood that its charter sector will grow while the district continues to move out of school buildings in an effort to consolidate strained resources,  several board members said Tuesday they planned to hold a special meeting to develop a policy within the next month.

The board granted the year-old W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools, which faced several controversies last year, a $693,390.90 lease to the former Lanier Middle School building despite the objections of several board members who were angry it was chosen without any academic data to support the decision. TCAP scores won’t be publicly released until later this month, so W.E.B. DuBois didn’t have test results for board members to examine.

“Now we don’t know what the hell we are getting,” board member David Reaves was overheard saying to district administrators after Tuesday’s meeting.

Freedom Preparatory Academy had also tried to lease the space but decided that the price the district was asking would be too high for the number of students it currently serves.

This was the first time that two charter schools had been vying to lease the same space in the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson admitted that Freedom Preparatory Academy has five more years of data demonstrating strong academic results, but given the district’s significant financial needs, he offered the space to to W.E.B. Dubois instead.

“We started from the premise that the two charter schools were essentially offering the same thing, absent a policy,” Hopson said.

Board member David Pickler said that he thought the superintendent’s reasoning was backwards and that the board should offer preferences to charter schools with proven results, rather than those who offered the most money for a lease. “I hope I’m hearing that wrong,” he said.

“One school is offering five bucks a square foot, the other one a dollar,” said Hopson. “More importantly [W.E.B. Dubois’] plan is to purchase the building.” 

In the past the board had asked Hopson to take into consideration the impact of leaving empty buildings in already-blighted neighborhood, giving W.E.B. Dubois’ lease-purchase agreement a leg up.

Freedom Preparatory Academy is currently located in the former Lakeview School but “was busting at the seems this year,” according to board Chairman Cardell Orrin. Orrin thinks Freedom Preparatory would better be able to serve its students by moving into a single building such as Lanier, as it grows from a school that serves grades 6-9 to a school that serves grades 6-12. Freedom Preparatory was one of three middle schools in the state to be recognized by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2013 for its strong academic record.

But the district was asking Freedom Preparatory to pay rent that would’ve worked out to be about 30 percent of the amount of money it brings in from the state at its current enrollment, according to Orrin. So Freedom Preparatory decided not to accept the district’s proposed lease and will instead split its school into two different sites in the coming year, one of which will be in a church.

“We’re disappointed,” Orrin said about Tuesday’s decision.

The W.E.B DuBois Consortium, led by former mayor Willie Herenton, has faced several major challenges in its first year including having to close a middle and high school it had opened in the district’s former Northside High School.

It is currently paying back around a half million dollars that it owed to Shelby County Schools after it over-projected the number of students it would enroll last year by a wide margin, according to the district CFO Alicia Lindsey.

Multiple board members said the repayment agreement with Herenton was bad business and similar agreements should be voted on by the board in the future. “If somebody owes you money you don’t do business with them,” said board member Billy Orgel.

The first time a vote was called on the proposed lease to W.E.B. Dubois, there were only two votes in favor after six votes had been tallied and it looked like it would fail. But just before the final vote was spoken, Hopson made it clear that, with less than three weeks before the start of school, 600 students from W.E.B. Dubois wouldn’t have a school building and the board would have to meet again to find another location for those students.

The motion passed with four votes in favor, the minimum needed for a motion to pass.

Chris Caldwell, Teresa Jones, Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods voted for the motion while Pickler and Reaves voted against it. Shante Avant abstained.

Four individuals who identified themselves as representatives of W.E.B Dubois left the board meeting right after the motion passed, but declined to comment, other than to say they were relieved that it passed.

“It was pretty touch and go for a minute,” one of them said in the parking lot.

Avant abstained from both votes, saying she had heard from worried parents  in her district at both charter schools. “Freedom Preparatory has a proven track record while parents at W.E.B Dubois are waiting to find out what school their child will attend,” said Avant. “It’s a hard decision. We need policies in place and not make these decisions on a case by case basis.”

Avant is facing reelection in less than a month.

In the long term Pickler said that there very may well be 40, 50, or even 60 charter schools in the district and the board needs to call a special meeting to clarify its position. “[Charter schools] are becoming the 8th district” in Shelby County, said Pickler after the meeting. “And we’ve been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.”

Hopson rebutted the view that Memphis will become a charter school district. “I hope we don’t turn into New Orleans…When you really dig into the numbers, if charter schools were performing significantly different than our schools, then that would be a different discussion.”

In other actions, the board agreed to let Vision Preparatory Charter School move into the former Riverview Elementary.

The board also approved the opening of seven new charter schools in 2015, including Aspire, Excel Center, Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Leadership Prep, Libertas, MASS, Sankore Collegiate.

They denied four amended charter school applications: Emerge Collegiate Schools, Memphis Global Leadership Academy for Architecture and Urban Design, Military Academy of Culture and Technology, and Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation Middle School.

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

In an email, Chin disputed the union representative’s allegations and said many staffers did not want him to leave.

“Only a small number of teachers were unhappy with my leadership because they were held to a higher expectations [sic] and or were investigated for inappropriate actions,” he said. “I have received many emails from staff telling me they are very sorry and that it was a pleasure having me as their principal.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the outgoing principal of Flushing High School, Tyee Chin.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.