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.


Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”