Future of Schools

D.C. Public Schools officials tour Memphis iZone

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone superintendent Sharon Griffin is flanked by Jason Kamras and Gene Pickard, leaders with the District of Columbia Public Schools, during a Wednesday tour of Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis.

The mounting success of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone is attracting national attention from other school districts exploring initiatives that could improve their own low-performing schools. 

Administrators with the school turnaround program on Wednesday hosted representatives of District of Columbia Public Schools, one of the nation’s most troubled school systems which, like Memphis, serves a large population of students from low-income families.

The D.C. officials were the fifth contingent of educators to tour the iZone, where most schools saw gains in math and science on the state’s TCAP exam last year. 

Other visitors have included school leaders from Detroit, Knoxville and Oakland, Ca., as well as the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based educational and policy studies organization.

“People are wanting to look at our strategies in action,” said Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent. “All of our success on paper is one thing, but when you actually come in, you can talk to teachers and a central office-level staff (person) about not only our successes, but our challenges as well.”

The iZone’s work was highlighted in a December report by Vanderbilt University tracking school improvement efforts in Memphis. The researchers said iZone schools are having “positive, statistically significant, and substantively meaningful effects on student achievement across all subjects.”

Griffin welcomes attention from other school districts facing similar challenges. “It’s a great way for us to bounce ideas off one another,” she said.

Created in 2010, the iZone gives administrators of low-performing schools the autonomy to institute intensive turnaround efforts such as hiring and firing staff, overhauling curriculums, awarding bonuses to teachers, and adding time to the school day.

Eighteen Memphis schools have been absorbed into Shelby County Schools’ iZone, 17 of which have seen positive gains, including seven schools that are no longer on the state’s list of the bottom 5 percent of schools. Three more Memphis schools are scheduled to join the iZone next school year.

Griffin attributes much of the iZone’s success to having the autonomy to handpick staff and alter strategies without waiting for data to tell them what they already know — that something isn’t working.

Sarah Lee, a D.C. district official on Wednesday’s tour, said information gathered from Memphis’ iZone will help school leaders determine next steps in the nation’s capital, where struggling schools have had stagnant or incremental academic growth.

Public school officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone's top-performing schools.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School officials from Washington, D.C., visit a classroom at Cherokee Elementary, one of the iZone’s top-performing schools.

“We’re designing our turnaround work right now, so everything is open to discussion,” she said. “It could be that we implement some of the best practices, or it could be that we follow the structuring of schools similar to the iZone clusters.”

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has sought the authority to use charter schools as a school turnaround mechanism and to have flexibilities to extend the school day and initiate other significant interventions. The iZone model does not include charter networks but does provide more autonomy for school leaders. In Memphis, the iZone has been a less confrontational turnaround approach than charter schools, which have been the primary intervention vehicle of the other major turnaround program in Memphis, Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The iZone also has the benefit of not ceding enrollment and funding to charters, which make up a growing share of D.C. schools

Lee said her team has searched the nation for best school improvement practices and was led to Memphis by the Vanderbilt study, as well as similar challenges faced by both Shelby County Schools and D.C. Public Schools.

“I think we have similar student demographics,” Lee said.  “A lot of the challenges that Dr. Griffin talked about are not surprising to us; its a familiar story for us.”

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.