Warning

Here are seven Memphis charter schools in danger of closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman / Chalkbeat

Seven Memphis charter schools could close in 2020 if they don’t improve, based on Shelby County Schools’ first report card comparing its schools.

The district’s newly released school performance scorecard rated seven of its 51 charters below 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the top score. Under a new accountability system for charter schools, those that fall below 2 automatically begin a review process and must improve within two years or face revocation of their charters by the school board.

The schools in jeopardy are:

  • Dubois Elementary Arts & Technology
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • Excel Center
  • Dubois High Arts & Technology
  • Dubois Middle Leadership & Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • KIPP Memphis Collegiate Elementary

In all, the seven publicly funded, privately managed schools serve 2,285 students. Three of the schools are operated by W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools, founded by Willie Herenton, the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

The scorecard compares test scores, academic growth, suspension and attendance rates, and whether students are prepared for life after high school, using data from the State Department of Education.

The main goal is to provide information to parents, community members, and policymakers and not to punish low-performing schools, said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management. The exception is charter schools, where consequences are attached for a low score under a new accountability system developed by district and charter leaders.

But the schools on this year’s scorecard could close even sooner than 2020.

The state recently warned all seven schools that they are in danger of appearing on Tennessee’s “priority list” of schools in the bottom 5 percent, based on their performance on last year’s standardized tests. The Department of Education will release the list this fall, and charters on it will automatically be closed. Two other Memphis charters — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and City University School Girls Preparatory — are also on the warning list and in danger of being shuttered by the state, but didn’t score low enough to begin Shelby County’s review process.

Here’s an outline of the new review process under Shelby County’s scorecard:

  1. Charter schools that do not meet minimum expectations are notified by the district.
  2. Within a month, school leaders meet with district administrators to present an action plan. (The seven schools on this year’s list must submit their plan by Feb. 12.)
  3. District administrators may check in as the plan is executed but give the charter school full autonomy to make the improvements they deem necessary.
  4. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a second consecutive school year, they will be notified.
  5. The school must develop a second action plan.
  6. If the charter school does not meet expectations for a third consecutive school year, district leadership will recommend to the school board that its charter be revoked.

The process stands in stark contrast to the school board’s 2016 decision to revoke the charters of three Memphis schools. Their recommended closure came with little warning, and charter leaders complained that the process was rushed and haphazard. They also noted that some of the district’s lowest-performing charters were not scrutinized. The State Board of Education later upheld the Memphis board’s ruling, but criticized Shelby County Schools for its process.

In this year’s scorecard, 10 new charter schools did not receive a score because either they don’t have a third-grade class to measure state test scores or have not tested yet.

And two high schools — Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy and Freedom Preparatory Academy — did not have enough data to generate a score on how well they prepare students to enroll in college or directly enter the workforce because they did not have a graduating class in 2016, where the data was pulled. Freedom Preparatory Academy was not in danger of slipping below the threshold, but Dubois High Leadership & Public Policy was close.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.