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.



As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”