Future of Schools

Tennessee’s state-run school turnaround district poised to escape lawmakers’ intervention — again

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Though behind the Senate, the Tennessee House of Representatives is wrapping up committees as this year's session nears conclusion.

Despite blustery talk of clipping the Achievement School District’s wings this year, Tennessee’s school turnaround district appears poised to escape this legislative session unscathed, with as much support as ever among the ranks of lawmakers.

Last year, 22 bills were filed to limit or place controls on the district, which began operations in 2011 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, most of which are in Memphis.

This year, seven bills were filed related to the state-run district, and only two appear to be still in play. Both are sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who managed last year to shepherd in a law that prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high-growth test scores.

Both of Akbari’s active 2016 bills have been amended to soften the impact on the ASD.

One measure, which is headed to the House floor, originally would have prohibited the ASD from taking over a school if other schools are ranked below it. The amended bill removes references to the ASD and proposes that the state begin ranking schools according to academic performance on its priority list of lowest-performing schools.

Akbari’s second bill, which she’s scheduled to present next week in subcommittee, would require the ASD to post more information online about the charter networks that run its schools. The bill originally would have required charter operators to demonstrate certain student achievement levels before being authorized to operate another public charter school, either within the ASD or a local district.

A pragmatist, Akbari says the tougher ASD legislation will be discussed during lawmakers’ summer study sessions.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

“You have to have support … and you have to bring everyone to the table, and that takes time,” she said Thursday.

This year’s ASD-related bills ranged from a proposal to abolish the ASD to one allowing the state-run district to take over a school only if no other lower-performing school is eligible for intervention. But most have fizzled or languished in committees before being debated.

The legislative sputtering is indicative of continued support for the ASD by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who maintain that the state’s turnaround district is an important part of Tennessee’s multi-pronged strategy to improve low-performing schools.

It also stands in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of last December when a significant Vanderbilt University study showed that ASD schools had shown less academic growth than other urban schools in Innovation Zones, which are turnaround programs operated by local districts. Fueling the anger were allegations that the ASD had rigged its process last fall for determining whether to proceed with interventions at low-performing Memphis schools being matched with charter operators. The confluence of events prompted Shelby County’s school board and the state legislature’s black caucus to call for a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.

No bills were filed this year to seek a moratorium, but lawmakers did file several aimed at restricting the ASD’s autonomy.

The most robust debate occurred this week in a House subcommittee when ASD supporters and critics packed a hearing room in Legislative Plaza in opposition to a bill by Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat. The proposal would have allowed parents to halt ASD school takeovers with the signatures of 60 percent of parents at the schools in question.

Beck brought in heavy hitters — Jesse Register, former director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools; Sue Kessler, a principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville; and Mark North, an attorney — who charged that the ASD did not collaborate sufficiently with Metro Nashville when it took over a middle school last year that already had been improving on its own, which state test scores later bore out.

But they were outnumbered and overshadowed by impassioned parents who had traveled to Nashville from Memphis in support of the ASD, even though the bill in question was directed at Neely’s Bend College Prep in Beck’s district, now one of the ASD’s two schools in Nashville. Bedecked in orange T-shirts, the parents from Memphis Lift, an advocacy group started by a former ASD official and funded by a company founded by charter school supporter John Little, cheered throughout testimony from ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson and Keith Williams, a senior fellow with Tennessee’s chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The bill ultimately was defeated on a voice vote as the debate highlighted the nuances — and sometimes inconsistencies — of some of the arguments presented.

Supporters say the ASD brings empowering choice to low-income parents. But when faced with a bill to let parents collectively choose to take back the reins of a school from the ASD, those same supporters cried foul. The ASD has only helped low-income families like their own, they argued, and its growth shouldn’t be hindered.

Historically, members of the House Education Administration & Planning subcommittee have supported “school choice” and data-backed decision-making. But when presented with data showing that the ASD opted last year to take over Neely’s Bend Middle Prep instead of lower-performing priority schools in Nashville, committee members maintained their support for the state-run district, saying it was the most effective tool for improvement.

The raucous debate likely was the last one about the ASD for this year’s legislative session, which is drawing to a close.

"We value ... the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

But Anderson, who became the ASD’s chief in January, insists it’s still too early to tell, with some bills still on committee calendars and several weeks before the General Assembly adjourns. “I think that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of this legislative session on the ASD,” Anderson said Thursday. “We value the meaningful, informative and mostly cooperative work that the ASD, our parents, community members and legislators are engaged in throughout the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early.”

Of bills that are tabled this year, many will make their way to legislative study sessions this summer, according to Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who is the lead sponsor of an ASD-related bill drafted by Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. That bill would limit ASD eligibility to the state’s bottom 2.5 percent of schools instead of the bottom 5 percent.

“The bill was filed more to have a discussion,” Dunn said. “In my view, it would be better over the summer to really take a hard look at schools and see the best way to move forward.”

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.