Future of Schools

Kids get to keep their business profits under winning school plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jeffrey Berry, Tiffany Thomas and Darius Sawyers receive applause after being named as winners at Teach Plus' InnovatEd conference.

A charter school that would let students create their own businesses and keep the profits was a money-winning idea at an innovation fair Sunday that three teachers hope will become a reality next fall.

The idea for the school, created by teachers Tiffany Thomas, Darius Sawyers and Jeffrey Berry, won at InnovatED, an event put on by the Indianapolis chapter of the national teacher advocacy group Teach Plus and education reform group The Mind Trust last weekend aimed at designing new schools. The group will split a $5,000 prize, and two of its members hope to bring the idea to the mayor’s charter school board this spring.

The teachers based their school on the biggest problem they see in education today, nationally and across Indianapolis: kids just aren’t connected to what they’re learning, and they can’t see how what they’re doing is relevant to their lives beyond high school.

“I think our idea is so innovative because it solves so many secondary issues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with school,” Sawyers, a high school science teacher at Fall Creek Academy, said.

The school’s design incorporates a few key programs that try to address the needs of high-poverty students. First, an Illinois company called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities pairs eligible students with mentors from the business community to design original businesses then launch and showcase them at a trade show at the end of the year. Students keep what they earn, which offers their families some financial support.

Although the school pays a fee to participate with CEO, the company raises money locally and pays its own way. Students can see a real-world application of what they’re learning, and the school doesn’t bear an additional cost.

Following an early college academy model

The school also models part of its structure off Dayton Early College Academy, a charter high school in Ohio that establishes six “milestones” students must complete during high school, including community service hours, research projects, job shadow opportunities, internships and other academic requirements. To pass each step,  students must present to and be approved by a panel of educators and community members. As a result, students do not follow traditional grade levels.

Finally, the school connects each student to a network of teachers, adults and other community members through the job shadows and internships. This advisory group would give students support in and out of school, which makes it more likely that they succeed, Thomas, a French teacher at Broad Ripple High School, said.

Her idea to blend these different programs came from presentations she saw at an education conference at the University of Indianapolis.

“I saw the DECA program present and the CEO program present and listening to them got me reinvigorated, got me excited again,” Thomas said. “Hearing from the (DECA) kids themselves really was everything. I was looking at those kids and thinking, ‘Those are our kids … they’re dealing with the same population and the same problems, but they’re having great success.'”

The school in Dayton looks similar to many in Indianapolis: Of its 436 students, about 90 percent are black or Hispanic and 80 percent come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $43,500 or less. But data from Ohio’s state tests last year showed 100 percent of juniors passed in every subject on a state test, and more than 95 percent of sophomores passed.

To gain traction in Indianapolis, Thomas has been forging partnerships with local K-8 charter schools that don’t have direct feeder high schools. The goal is to locate the school on the city’s east side, where Thomas plans to visit apartment complexes to share information about the concept with families.

Casey Patterson, an InnovatED judge, said the winning group showed a level of research, commitment to academic rigor and fundraising know-how that put it above the others.

“I think they had a better idea of where they are heading and what students need,” said Patterson, a former Teach Plus executive director and principal from Brownsburg. “Yes, they need to be engaged. Yes, they need to like school. But they had an understanding that you need to hold kids to high academic achievement.”

Bringing community resources to needy children

Participants at the conference also chose a second winning idea, a community resource center in Avon, that received $3,000. Katie Mitchell, a special education teacher at White Oak Elementary School, said her group’s idea was born out of the demographic shifts happening in her community.

More students are coming from low-income families, she said, and the community doesn’t have the resources to fully to support them, in and out of school. Although she acknowledged that her school isn’t facing the same challenges as schools in Indianapolis, she said that the community has virtually no support services available, so they want to be proactive in addressing problems as they occur.

“It’s not a topic that people are talking a whole lot about yet,” Mitchell said. “As teachers, we see it coming, we’re starting to see those students. Our idea isn’t innovative for the nation, but it is for our area and the population we’re serving.”

Mitchell said she and her colleagues will use the money to develop a pilot for the center in one of the district’s unused trailers. At the center families can learn how to help their kids with homework and receive other services, such as food, clothing, counseling and access computers and Internet. The center will also host workshops for parents on new academic standards, CPR training, GED classes or English-language classes.

Last year, the school created a neighborhood initiative called Traveling Teachers, which sent teachers out into the community to form relationships with families. The center would be a way to expand on those efforts.


The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.