Future of Schools

Tennessee lawmakers want to roll back A-F school grades before they’ve been given

Just a year after deciding that every school should get a single letter grade, Tennessee lawmakers are poised to take it back.

Last year, a bill requiring all schools to get an A-F grade starting in 2018 sailed through the legislature. Supporters said parents needed an easy tool to understand how their child’s school was performing, even as critics — including many educators — argued that school quality can’t easily be summed up by a single letter grade.

But a lot can change in a year. School grading systems have fallen out of favor in many of the 18 states that have instituted A-F systems in recent years.

And Tennessee is likely to be the latest to join them, with a bill revising the grading system appearing on track for passage after sailing through a House education subcommittee last week.

The bill, drafted by the state’s superintendents group and supported by the State Department of Education, would give schools multiple letter grades — for how much students’ test scores improve, how high the scores are, and other measures “deemed appropriate” by the department.

Schools would also get one overall rating, ranging from “exemplary” to “priority,” for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

Proponents say the change is necessary to illuminate where schools are struggling and to allow their successes to shine.

“If you oversimplify with the letter grade, you prevent people from looking more deeply into what the issues might actually be,” said Wayne Miller, president of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

He compared the current grading system to giving students only a single grade on their report card, rather than separate grades for each subject. “It’s important for us to know that you struggle in language arts, but it’s not important to pull down your entire performance because of that,” Miller said.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the policy revision won’t help parents.

“We need something more descriptive that says ‘this school’s in trouble,’” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the House Administration and Planning committee. “The difference between the 6th and 10th percentile is not a lot.”

Lawmakers in the full education committee signaled Monday that they will advance the bill.  

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

priority exit

Four Memphis schools improve enough to exit ‘priority’ list, including one in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary staff celebrate test score results in 2015. The state-run school is now one of four to exit the state's priority list.

Four schools improved enough to exit Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing schools, the state announced Friday, and they’re all located in Memphis.

The schools, including one within the state-run Achievement School District, are:

  • Mitchell High, Shelby County Schools;
  • Treadwell Elementary, Shelby County Schools;
  • Northwest Prep Academy, Shelby County Schools;
  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District.

The moves are significant, as only 16 percent of “priority” schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists.

This is only the second time an ASD school has left the priority list, said Bobby White, the turnaround district’s executive director of external affairs. He said that Brick Church College Prep, located in Nashville, exited the list previously. The ASD was created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest-performing schools and now oversees 32 schools in Nashville and Memphis.

The state’s priority list is released every three years and includes the bottom 5 percent of schools, which could see state intervention. Memphis has historically contained a significant portion of schools on the state’s list of priority schools.

The Department of Education has postponed the release of this year’s full list to next summer. On Friday, it released several smaller lists, including schools eligible to leave and schools that are close.

Seven schools were named “priority improving” schools by the state, meaning they did well, but not quite well enough to exit the list:

  • Westwood High School, Shelby County Schools
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Sherwood Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Lester Prep, Achievement School District
  • John B. Whitsitt Elementary, Davidson County
  • Inglewood Elementary, Davidson County

The state also oversees more than 200 “focus schools,” which are schools struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.  Fifteen schools exited the focus school list, the state said Friday, and another 20 made significant improvements. See the full list on the state’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more context around the ASD’s exit.