deeper dive

Closer look at Achievement School District’s original schools shows wide range in trajectories

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

When state test scores came out earlier this week, leaders of the Achievement School District breathed a sigh of relief: After two bumpy years in which test scores fell or stayed flat, the state-run turnaround district’s original schools posted significant gains, especially in math.

State and ASD officials said the third year of scores showed that overhauling persistently low-performing schools without displacing their students, the district’s unusual model, takes time to pay off.

But a closer analysis of test scores at the six Memphis schools that joined the district in 2012, its first year, suggests that that story is not true across the board. In fact, only three of the schools saw the proportion of students scoring “proficient” or higher in math rise since last year, and almost all saw their reading scores fall during that time.

The analysis shows that progress at the schools at the heart of the state’s effort to catapult the state’s worst schools into the top tier is uneven at best. It also underscores the fact that with attention on a tiny number of schools, outsized gains at just a few can color the picture for all.

And it provides a clear illustration of one quirk of Tennessee’s focus on student growth over performance: The schools racked up points for having fewer students score “basic,” the state’s lowest level, even as the proportion of students whose scores put them at grade level did not rise at most of them. That trend suggests that students’ skills are moving in the right direction but are still far from achieving the ASD’s lofty ambitions.

“If our students are ever going to catch up, and we’re going to close the achievement gap, then we’ve got to be growing faster than the state average,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said Wednesday. “There’s certainly still lots of work for us to do.”

Six schools — five in Memphis and one in Nashville — joined the ASD in 2012, its first year operating schools. Three of them were assigned to charter operators, while the district opted to run three others directly. All got new names, teachers and programs in an effort to break out of long histories of low performance.

Of those schools, the three that the district has run directly — all in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood — had higher math scores this year than when the ASD took over, although only two of the schools have outpaced the state’s overall trend during that time.

“We have some really incredible gains this year in Frayser, and that’s partially what led to the 5 overall,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s director of new schools, referring to the six schools’ combined rating from the state, the highest possible.

But all three schools that the district assigned to charter operators, privately managed but publicly funded nonprofits, had fewer students score proficient or advanced in math this year than last year, even as two had more students at those levels than in 2013.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14,***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from Algebra 1 exams.

Reading scores declined at all six of the ASD’s original schools, although at least three schools that have been in the district for less time saw reading gains.

At Brick Church College Prep, scores fell sharply in all subjects, suggesting that something changed dramatically at the school in its third year or that high scores in the second year did not accurately reflect students’ skills at the time — or both.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14, ***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from English 1 exams.

A policy change that State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen floated as an explanation for statewide score stumbles — a new rule requiring students with disabilities to take the same tests as other students, rather than easier versions — would have hit Brick Church especially hard. Almost a third of the school’s students have disabilities, about double the district and state average.

But Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, the charter organization that runs Brick Church, said a bigger issue was that the school had departed from the network’s prescribed curriculum. “The impact on changes in testing for special education students is very real in schools like Brick Church, but we prefer instead to focus on an effective curriculum implementation that serves all students,” he said, noting that the network had removed the school’s leader at the end of the year.

Brick Church’s experience and the uneven progress among the ASD schools is significant, according to Will Pinkston, who gave the district its name when he helped write the legislation that created it, and who now sits on Nashville’s school board. It’s not the district’s model that’s successful, he says, but the principals and teachers at the three schools with the dramatic gains.

“The structure is much less important than the personnel and the quality and the leadership in the building,” Pinkston said.

To some degree, scores at the ASD’s schools might not even be the best measure of its impact. State officials have repeatedly emphasized that the ASD has placed pressure on districts to improve schools or risk losing them.

“I certainly believe the ASD has been a positive lever for change across our state,” McQueen said Wednesday.

Indeed, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat that he thought competition had pushed local principals to make important changes on their own.

“The ASD has created this sense of urgency that may not of been there,” Hopson said. “Principals, if they never knew before, you now see them with an extra pep in their step.  You see communities rallying around schools.”

But some local school leaders say they would have made those changes with or without the specter of ASD takeover. And the state’s efforts to improve its lowest-performing schools extended beyond the ASD’s borders, with Shelby County receiving millions of dollars in federal funds for its own schools as well. In those schools, known together as the district’s Innovation Zone, test score trends are also mixed. But more of them posted year-over-year gains, including several that bucked the state trend and saw reading scores climb.

Taken together, the scores suggest exactly what districts across the country have found and Barbic has taken to saying lately: that turning around schools with low test scores and many high-needs students is extremely difficult.

Expecting anything other than small gains each year — and potentially some setbacks — might have been unrealistic, according to Joshua Glazer, a researcher at The George Washington University studying the district.

“You want to see incremental progress,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic that you’re going to see the pace of gains to put a school in the top quartile.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.