College preparation

Memphis high school students get taste of college life through Summer Institutes

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
High school student Dekena Ervin attends an entrepreneurship class at the University of Memphis through the Summer Institutes, launched in 2015 in partnership with GRAD Academy Memphis. The South Memphis charter school announced it would be closing this summer.

Standing in front of their class at the University of Memphis, high school students fidget nervously before pitching a business idea to their classmates: producing soap carved in the shape of ducks.

“Did you guys just come up with that?” asked business professor Jennifer Sadler, prompting a sheepish acknowledgement from the teenagers that they did.

“When I give my students work to do, it means you need to get it done outside of class,” admonished Sadler, who then quickly assured the students that some of the most successful business ideas are inspired in five minutes or less.

Such interaction is common at the GRAD Academy’s Summer Institutes, launched this summer in an effort to prepare and encourage students at the Memphis high school to graduate and continue their studies at college.

GRAD Academy Memphis is a charter school within the Achievement School District, the state’s school turnaround district for Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Eighty percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged, and only about a third scored proficient on the state algebra achievement test in 2013-14.

This week, 50 of the school’s 10th- and 11th-graders have been immersed in a college environment at the University of Memphis. Last week, a different group of GRAD Academy students attended classes at Rhodes College, also in Memphis. Each week costs roughly $30,000 to operate, and the funding comes from a private donor. The program is free to students, who need at least a 2.0 GPA to be eligible to attend. For completing a summer institute, each student receives a $150 stipend.

Participants this week arrived on campus and ate breakfast each day at the Tiger Den dining hall before attending classes taught by university faculty. Just like with college students, they are expected to attend class and complete assignments. On Friday, the students will present a project demonstrating what they learned and will participate in graduation ceremonies.

“It’s pretty miraculous that in a week’s time, they learn some introductory material, create a presentation, and share it with their friends and family on Friday,” said Stephanie Hill, dean of students at GRAD Academy Memphis.

At the University of Memphis, students chose from four “tracks,” or majors: communications, entrepreneurship, engineering and art/film. Each track has a university student who serves as “team leader” to guide the high school students on campus and assist teachers in the classroom, where the student-teacher ratio is 17:1.

University of Memphis senior and team leader Gregesha Williams said the Summer Institute help students realize that college is possible.

“They were just so excited about having the possibility to be an adult and attend school,” Williams said. “It gives them hope and encouragement and it lets them know that they already have what they need within them to be successful.”

Sixteen-year-old Dekena Ervin, who was part of the team who pitched the soap company, said participating in the program helps her to envision herself on a college campus someday, despite the early morning classes and heavy workload.

University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute on the campus of the University of Memphis.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
University of Memphis instructor Jennifer Sadler presents a lesson during an entrepreneurship class at the GRAD Academy Summer Institute.

“I wanted to do this because I know my destiny in life. I want to be somebody,” said Dekena, who chose the entrepreneurship track. “I did it just to get the college experience and see how college would work out for me.”

Institute instructors treat Dekena and her classmates like college students. When Sadler critiqued her students’ business ideas, she offered suggestions on how to improve them next time.

Dekena said she appreciates the candid evaluation.

“When I express my ideas within the classroom, the professors actually give me honest feedback about what I say,” Dekena said. “Whether it’s good or bad, they give me honest feedback.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.