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.”

Future of Schools

Chicago Schools sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C Sullivan High School

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.