The Big Fix

At Grady, transformation funds change school's look and feel

Geraldine Maione, principal of William E. Grady CTE High School, speaks to a teacher getting ready for summer school.

“Everything about this school has improved. Everything.”

Geraldine Maione, principal of William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School in Brighton Beach, does not hesitate when asked about the trajectory of her school.

Maione just finished her first year at Grady, where she was greeted with a staff weary of leadership changes, a curriculum that has see-sawed between emphasizing traditional academics and the school’s signature “shops,” and a D grade on its 2009-10 progress report.

She was also given $1.4 million of additional “transformation” money through the federal government’s program to improve low-achieving schools.

At the end of her first year, staff members say they’ve felt the impact of Maione’s leadership and the additional funds—though it is unclear if the school is yet making the academic gains it needs to avoid facing closure in the future.

The transformation money helped pay for an array of cosmetic changes to the building and school trips to colleges throughout New York state, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC.

The entrance area was repainted from black and white to maroon and yellow, the school colors. The front doors are now framed by planters, filled with flowers, that double as benches. Murals featuring civil rights leaders and faces of current students fill once-blank hallway walls.

Grady's front entrance before cosmetic improvements, at top, and after.

“Since we did that, there has not been one graffiti on the wall, because the kids are the one doing the painting,” said parent coordinator Karen McDonald, who has worked at Grady for 14 years.

In a school with metal detectors and at least four security officers manning the front desk, those changes make an emotional difference for students, Maione argues.

By many metrics, the school has improved. Maione says students have earned 10 percent more credits this year, and the 2010-11 quality review report showed gains in almost every category, from how teachers use data to the school’s support services.

Ebony Mahoney, who is in charge of school security, said that both incidents and arrests were down. “The entire tone of the school changed,” she said.

But the school is still struggling to raise the bar academically. On that quality review, the school’s major weakness is still a “need to improve academic rigor in all classes,” and Grady is not labeled proficient in curriculum and pedagogy.

Its graduation rate also remains low. At graduation on June 27, 173 students were listed as graduating, while 473 students entered Grady in 2007. Last year’s official graduation rate was 42.3 percent.

Some of the school’s transformation money was funneled into paying teachers to offer after-school and during-school tutoring, including for Regents preparation. The money allowed the staff to offer those services to the entire school, according to the school’s assistant principal for instruction, Tarah Montalbano.

“We would never have been able to reach them without the transformation money,” she said.

McDonald says Grady has always offered extra tutoring, but it was attendance that was the real problem.

“Now they feel like they have to do the tutoring,” she said of the students who are struggling and want to go into one of the trades, like construction or automotive tech. “We tell them, you want to get a union job? You have to come to tutoring, you have to come to class.”

The school is still divided between students who want to go directly into the workforce and those who are aiming for college, and Grady is focused on both paths, she said.

“When I see a kid who says, I got a 55 on a test, I just say, next time let’s try for a 65. These kids just need to be motivated,” McDonald said.

Maione says she has no idea whether Grady will receive similar funding next year. A disagreement over teacher evaluations has left the teacher’s union and the city in a standoff over whether the transformation model can continue.

Either way, she is framing the fight for Grady’s improvement as hers to win or lose.

“It’s the same staff. This has been my cry for the last year—stop blaming the teachers,” she said.

The biggest change this year, though, is the atmosphere that Maione herself has created. Maione’s passion for the school where she taught for over a decade—which comes out in healthy doses of tough love—is obvious.

Staff members say that morale has improved, thanks to a more collaborative leadership style than that of previous principal Carlston Gray.

Maione projects a no-nonsense exterior (after a student was surprised to see a picture of her with a pit bull, she responded, ‘What, you think I’d sleep with a poodle?’). But she tears up every few moments when talking about students who have overcome challenges at home to succeed at Grady.

“We get many, many more kids who need love, more than other schools,” she said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede