Arne Duncan

Memphis school improvement efforts in spotlight as Duncan finishes back-to-school tour

Efforts to improve historically low-scoring schools in Memphis were in the national spotlight Wednesday as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan ended his back-to-school bus tour of southern states with a pep rally and town hall meeting at Cornerstone Prep, a charter school that’s part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Duncan said he chose to end his tour in Memphis in order to “look at the turnaround work that’s happening there and the overall improvement in schools.”

At the town hall at Cornerstone Prep, Duncan told a crowd, “I want you to understand the possibility here… If you can, for all the challenges of poverty and history—if Memphis can break through, what kind of message does that send to the country? I want people to seize the moment, seize the collaboration. Keep your eyes on the prize. If you stay the course, you’ll stun the world.”

After the meeting, Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said he hoped some of the national attention being paid to education in Memphis would be echoed in town. “I can’t go anywhere without hearing about Memphis and education,” he said.

Duncan, Hopson, ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, principal Lionel Cable of  Shelby County school Douglass K-8, Cornerstone teacher Brittany Ordue, and Cornerstone parent Yolanda George participated in a question-and-answer session led by Reggie White, the director of Streets Ministries, a local nonprofit.

A student at Cornerstone Prep holds a sign as eventgoers move from the pep rally to an indoor town hall.
A student at Cornerstone Prep holds a sign as event-goers move from the pep rally to an indoor town hall.

Both Barbic and Hopson specifically emphasized collaborative efforts between the ASD and Shelby County Schools. They also raised concerns about finding and retaining enough teachers to work in low-performing schools and about scaling up successful efforts.

The districts were touting results from last school year’s state standardized test: While scores within each district were mixed, there are 4,500 fewer students in Memphis attending schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on their test scores this year than in 2012. And while low-scoring schools’ scores had hovered around 16 percent proficient on state tests in 2012, they are now closer to 25 percent proficient. Tennessee also was rated the fastest-growing state in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Process last year.

Hopson said the district has been focusing on teacher effectiveness, early childhood education, and literacy. He also singled out “our relationship with Mr. Barbic and his team…as he likes to say, we’re in ‘co-opetition.’ When you bring people together where the agenda is what’s best for kids, you see the successes we’ll talk about today.”

Barbic echoed the sentiment. “There’s not a city I can think of when you can pack a room like this where you don’t have people lobbing bombs…charter and non-charter, we have to come together to get this done,” he said.

“We have one common enemy—academic failure. We all have to work together to eliminate failure,” Duncan said.

When asked what led to improvements in test scores at his school, Cable, the principal at Douglass K-8, a school in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, pushed back against a common buzzword: “There’s no innovation there, just really rich, very strong teaching. If you introduce innovation—people put it out there but they don’t talk about sustainability,” he said. Innovation Zone schools received federal School Improvement Grant funds, longer school days, and more flexibility in hiring staff.

Education secretary Arne Duncan addresses the crowd outside Cornerstone.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the crowd outside Cornerstone, formerly Lester Elementary, in Binghamton.

“We’re supposed to race to the top. But sometimes it’s okay to come in last as long as we’re doing what’s right by the children,” Cable said. A 2011 Race to the Top grant—one of Duncan’s education department’s signature programs—funded the creation of the ASD. Several changes prompted by the grant, including tying teachers’ evaluations to test scores, have drawn the ire of the state’s teachers’ union and some district leaders.

Duncan said that while Race to the Top had been significant, his department had spent more on school turnaround programs such as the Innovation Zone schools. The federal School Improvement Grant program has had mixed results nationally; Duncan recently expanded the options for districts seeking to use federal dollars to turn around schools.

The panelists fielded questions about how to expand successful school turnarounds.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Barbic said. “How do you take pockets of excellence and scale them?…That comes down to how Dorsey and I work together to be strategic with our resources.”

“What we’ve found, particularly in turnaround schools, is that the most important thing is to have a strong leader, a strong group of teachers who beieve all kids can learn,” Hopson said.

Cable said that in his experience, “it’s certainly not the money…The important thing is for principals to have the autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of kids. I think that can be duplicated, but the handcuffs have to come off.” He said he had used the extra funds his school received to hire quality teachers rather than on new technology.

Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, asked Barbic whether the ASD, which aims to turn around schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state, would always exist. Barbic said that while the legislation that created the district did not specify, he thought the ASD would be around until the bottom 5 percent was scoring well above where it was when the district was created.

Duncan said that he was concerned that most districts were not sending their best teachers to the neediest schools. Barbic pointed out that Shelby County’s I-Zone schools only hire teachers who have earned high scores on evaluations. “But the question is then how do you backfill to other schools?” Board members and administrators in the district have echoed this concern.

A former teachers raises a sign contesting some of Duncan's favored policies.
A former teacher raises a sign contesting some of Duncan’s favored policies.

He said that districts and schools need to figure out “how to make sure teaching doesn’t feel like a two-three year thing on the way to something else. How can teachers feel like they can grow?”

The panelists were near-unanimous on the last question: When White asked what gave them hope for the city’s future, each said the city’s students inspired them.

“I moved to Memphis thinking I’d change lots of lives every year. But really, my life has been drastically changed,” said Ordue.


Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”