A tale of two cities

Achievement gap is narrowing in Memphis, growing in Nashville, study says

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Memphis is making headway while Nashville is struggling in closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, according to a new study released on Tuesday.

While Memphis’ gap is larger than 70 percent of major U.S. cities, it narrowed the gap by a whopping 19 percent between 2011 and 2014, one of the fastest rates in the nation, the study says.

Conversely, Nashville’s gap is bigger than 75 percent of the nation’s major cities, and grew by an alarming 11 percent during the same time period, with only one of 10 students from low-income families attending a school that is closing the achievement gap.

The study is based on the Education Equality Index, the first national comparative measure of the achievement gap at the school, city and state level, and was released by Education Cities and GreatSchools, both nonprofit organizations focused on school improvement, in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.  (The organizations later retracted the portion of the report about state-level changes, citing data analysis errors, but said its district-level analysis was sound.)

“There is much to celebrate in Memphis,” said Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of Education Cities, of the findings.

With more low-income Memphis families having access to a more equal playing field in education, Gray said the city is “proving that greater equality is possible.”

Memphis and Shelby County’s educational landscape has undergone sweeping changes in the last six years — some the result of the 2013 school merger and the 2014 secession by suburban municipalities creating their own school systems — but also due to major policy changes that led to the creation of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone and the state-run Achievement School District and contributed to the growth of the city’s charter sector.

“The one thing we’re seeing in Memphis, is that the diversity of options you’re providing are really evident on this list,” said Carrie McPherson Douglass, a managing partner at Education Cities.

“The 19 percent score [in closing the achievement gap] is pretty exciting. Even if the overall score is not the best, it shows that Memphis is moving in the right direction,” she said.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that the numbers are even more remarkable considering the challenges facing Tennessee’s largest public school district. They include adapting to new structures amid a shrinking enrollment and budget, as well as a high concentration of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

“I can remember telling our teachers and principals years ago, that they were going to have to drown out all of the noise and chaos, focus, and just make it happen,” Hopson said. “And they did, and they continue to persevere by using an extraordinary amount of focus and grit.”

Nashville school leaders said they are not surprised by the findings that show the state’s capital city lagging.

“There’s been a growing awareness by our board and in our community that Memphis is out-hustling us when it comes to closing the achievement gap,” said Will Pinkston, who serves on the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “The fact that our district’s leadership was not thinking or acting with a sense of urgency in addressing this is one reason why there wasn’t an appetite for renewing Jesse Register’s contract” in 2014 as director of schools.

The nation’s 42nd largest district, Metro Nashville has been plagued by low student achievement and the flight of affluent students to private and suburban schools, while also struggling to keep pace with its changing student population. It is searching for a new schools director to replace Register.

District leaders also recently toured Shelby County Schools’ iZone, the Memphis district’s heralded school turnaround program, and want to emulate that model in Nashville. “When we have a new director, Job One needs to be to establish an iZone structure that’s similar to what’s going on in Memphis and make sure it’s adequately staffed with competent people who know how to turn around urban schools,” Pinkston said.

The Education Equality Index study identifies up to 10 schools in every major city with the smallest achievement gaps that serve a student population where the majority are from low-income families.

The Memphis schools, which represent Shelby County Schools and three charter schools, are: Delano Elementary, Ford Road Elementary, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Hollis F. Price Middle College High, Jackson Elementary, John P. Freeman Optional, Middle College High, Oakshire Elementary, Power Center Academy High, and Power Center Academy Middle.

In Nashville, RePublic Schools CEO Ravi Gupta points out that top 10 schools include six charter schools — two of which are run by RePublic.

“We have three or four board members in Nashville that vote on denying every charter,” said Gupta, whose Nashville-based charter network also operates schools in Jackson, Miss. “Charters, percentage-wise, are a very small group of schools in Nashville, yet they make up six out of 10 schools on that list. I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

Pinkston, who last year called for a moratorium on all new schools until the Nashville district can grapple with how to balance charter and traditional school growth, notes that charter schools do not serve students with special needs, English language learners and others with limited English proficiency to the extent that Metro Nashville schools do.

“They play by a different set of rules,” Pinkston said. “If you want to run test prep mills in Metro Nashville Public Schools, then by all means let’s charter everything because that’s all those schools care about.”

The Nashville schools listed are Z. Kelley Elementary, Chadwell Elementary, Joelton Elementary, KIPP Academy Nashville, LEAD Prep Southeast, Liberty Collegiate Academy, Nashville Prep, New Vision Academy, Rose Park Math/ Science Middle Magnet, and STEM Prep Academy.

 

Editor’s note: This version updates a previous version to include comments from Metro Nashville school board member Will Pinkston.

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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