charter schools

Best of 2014: As state prepares to list lowest-scoring schools, new high stakes for charters

For a picture of how Tennessee’s new charter school accountability law might play out on the ground, one might do well to look to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering.

The Memphis charter school, known as MASE, has been on the upswing since it was identified as one of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and placed on the state’s “priority list,” which consists of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state as determined by three years of test scores, in 2012.

The Memphis City school board recommended that the school — Tennessee’s first charter — be closed when its ten-year charter came up for renewal. But funders, parents, and teachers rallied to save the school, saying those scores didn’t tell the whole story. After hitting a low point in 2010-11, most of the school’s scores have gone up, and in 2013 MASE earned the state’s highest ranking on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures growth in students’ test scores, in three of four categories.

But unless MASE continues to post dramatically improved scores, it could find itself on the chopping block again. The law, passed this spring, mandates the closure of charter schools whose test scores put them on the priority list. That means that MASE must get out and stay out of the bottom 5 percent or risk being closed — and that schools that find themselves in MASE’s place in future years might not have the chance to turn their act around.

MASE’s story illustrates the problems legislators aimed to tackle with the new law — and suggests the challenges that come along with mandating closure for low-performing schools. Those challenges include the prospect of shuttering some schools that might actually serve students well.

“Even if it’s on the priority list, it doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t quality teachers,” said Tiffany Jones, the mother of four MASE students. “It doesn’t mean the students aren’t quality students.”

A new focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools

School quality was legislators’ main concern when they agreed to strict accountability rules for charter schools this spring. Under the new law, a charter school on the priority list will be subject to having its charters revoked after the end of the school year in which it isidentified as a priority school. That means schools on the new priority list released this summer could close as early as 2015.

The law also brings consequences for low-performing charter schools more closely into line with regulations about what should happen to low-scoring district-run schools. The state’s current school accountability system, enacted in order to win a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, makes schools in the bottom 5 percent eligible for a number of turnaround efforts. Those include placement in the state-run Achievement School District or in districts’ innovation zones, both of which may turn schools over to a charter operator as a strategy for school improvement.

In Shelby County, the district cited schools’ priority status in decisions to close 10 non-charter public schools this summer.

“If we’re going to close the bottom 5 percent schools, if we want to consider Shelby County schools for state takeover, we should definitely make sure the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent that are already charter schools are treated no differently,” said Kevin Woods, chair of the Shelby County school board. He said the board planned to take on low-performing charter schools even without the new law.

But state representative John DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis, said he thought the law was now harsher on charter schools than on public schools. District-run schools on the priority list can escape closure by being overhauled by new managers, but the law’s only stated remedy for charter schools is closure.

The current priority list includes three charter schools, but that may well climb when the new list is released because of charter schools’ share of the city’s schools is growing.

Filling a void in charter school accountability

National and local advocates applauded the legislature’s tough-love approach to charters. They say the law eases charter authorizers’ path to closing low-performing schools and will improve the quality of the charter sector in general.

“The law’s purpose is to stay consistent with the mission and intent behind the formation of charter schools: more autonomy for more accountability,” said Lee Harrell, the director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which backed the bill.

That was the bargain that MASE struck when it won the state’s first charter in 2003. But for the first decade of its existence, the school faced few consequences for declining performance.

Only when its charter came up for renewal last year did the school’s authorizer strive to hold the school accountable for boosting student performance. That’s because before the new state law, there was no prescribed approach for Tennessee charter school authorizers with low-performing charter schools.

“There needed to be clear guidelines and performance benchmarks to hold schools accountable. That process didn’t exist,” said Greg Thompson, the director of the the Tennessee Charter School Center, which supports the publicly-funded, privately-run schools. Thompson’s organization supported the legislation, which reflects a national trend of laws aimed at closing low-performing charters.

The fuzzy regulations are one reason that no Shelby County charter school has ever closed solely due to poor performance.

District officials recommended to the school’s board that MASE be closed in 2012, saying that the school “clearly no longer challenges students” and that it had strayed from its plans to deliver an extraordinary, STEM-focused curricula. But after the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a co-founder of the school, petitioned the board to consider the school’s upward trajectory, its seven years of solid scores, and its high graduation rate – and after legal counsel reassured the board that if the school was still struggling in two years, it could be shut down – the Memphis board voted 18 to 1 to keep it open.

Other Memphis charter schools have been closed for reasons that went beyond academic performance. Yo! Academy was shut in 2008 due to a combination of fiscal and academic concerns. Yo! Academy said it had not been given the chance to remediate students who came in far beyond grade level, and later sued the school district, claiming it had breached its contract —  a situation that TSBA’s Harrell said illustrated the need for the new law.

“A lot of time, in some of these areas, it’s been so difficult to close a school procedurally and legally,” he said.

Strict regulations, but questions about what they will accomplish

The new law leaves little room for interpretation. Any charter school on the new priority list will be slated for closure, pending a single public hearing to verify the data that landed it there. The only exception is for charter operators in the Achievement School District and those are already turning around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to trigger the automatic closure clause.

The law requires charter authorizers to establish a transition team to communicate regularly with students and families, ensure that all relevant parties know the school is about to close, and ensure that instruction is continuing for students who attend the school.

Families will also need to be informed about where their children can attend school once their charter school closes — a tricky task in Memphis, where 69 public schools, more than a quarter of the city’s total, are on the current priority list.

“When we were first placed on the list, students received letters about other schools that they could attend. But, believe it or not, when we looked at those schools, most of them were doing worse than us,” said Ketia Francis, who led MASE’s middle school turnaround.

MASE took a hit when it landed on the priority list. Enrollment plummeted, from more than 600 students to closer to 300. Close to 15 percent of the school’s teachers, including some top performers, left. Media attention spotlighted shortcomings. A long-standing partnership with Christian Brothers University ended. And declining enrollment brought a shrinking budget.

But parents and teachers rallied. Parent Jones, who drives her children 35 minutes to the school each day, said morale in the building remained high. Francis, then the new middle school principal, worked to change the school’s culture, hired new teachers, and started using a new series of interim assessments. Middle school students had extra math courses and tutoring. The school is planning to revamp professional development for teachers and renew its focus on STEM next year.

But the school’s struggle also spurred increased attention and investment from charter school supporters, including the Bioworks Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation.

MASE’s new executive director, Jammie Poole, argued that had the new law been in effect the last time the priority list came out, his school might not have had a chance to make improvements.

“It makes sense if the state creates this list and says, here’s what we want to see along the way, and then you can get off the list. Here’s the support to get off this list that you may need,” he said. “But if it’s just the list, and you close, I don’t know if that’s productive.”

Either way, he said, he is optimistic that MASE won’t be on the state’s new priority list.

“We’re rebranding,” said Poole, who previously led turnaround schools in Chicago and a network of schools in Massachusetts. “It’s been 10 years and a lot has happened. … But if you come back here in three weeks, you’ll see a different school.”

“This year, if we do what we anticipate doing, we will be off that list,” he added.

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”

 

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.