Growing 'family'

As Memphis expands its efforts to improve schools, one model is about to double in size

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addressed Manor Lake Elementary parents in March about upcoming changes.

As a mother of three who has lived in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood for almost 25 years, Regina Mosley sees the area high school as an anchor in the midst of a rapidly changing education landscape.

The high-performing Whitehaven High school is also the anchor of the Empowerment Zone, one of Shelby County Schools’ newest intervention programs. It will more than double in size by adding six schools this fall.

The Empowerment Zone, which will enter its third year in August, is a neighborhood-centric approach to improve schools as the district seeks to include a larger group of people who are committed to seeing the school do well.

Mosley hopes the school improvement model will make the 107-year-old school shine even more.

“There’s no other foundation I’ve seen that stands the test of time because of the unity of the people: alumni, teachers, students, parents, everybody is involved,” said Mosley, who is also a parent leader for area schools.

Over the last eight years, Tennessee has worked to improve performance at its struggling schools, and state test scores have improved as a result — especially in Memphis, where most students are from low-income families. The results of the Empowerment Zone have been promising, but some are worried about the next phase, when more elementary schools will be added in the coming school year. All but one school in the zone saw academic growth this school year.

Created in 2016, the Empowerment Zone was meant to shield a cluster of low-performing schools in Whitehaven from takeover by the state. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leaned on Vincent Hunter, who has been principal of Whitehaven High for 14 years, to collaborate across schools on lesson plans so teachers could learn from each other. Hunter also brought in college-student tutors to reduce the teacher-to-student ratio through a partnership with Peer Power and the University of Memphis.

Teachers are offered signing bonuses and have an extra set of academic coaches who specialize in their grade levels. Before entering the Empowerment Zone, Hunter invites principals into team planning across the zone so they can understand how it works.

The schools are all governed by the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone Leadership Council, which is composed of about 30 parents, teachers, students, and community members who meet monthly to go over reports about student enrollment and test scores, and to strategize.

“That creates a sense of unity for us. We want to always be viewed as family. Plus it’s personal to me,” said Hunter, a Whitehaven high graduate who started teaching at his alma mater in 1994. About 45 staff members across the zone are also graduates of the neighborhood high school, he said.

Whitehaven Empowerment Zone schools by year

  • 2016-17: Whitehaven High, Havenview Middle
  • 2017-18: Holmes Road Elementary, A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • 2018-19: Geeter K-8 (formerly Geeter Middle and Manor Lake Elementary), Whitehaven Elementary, Oakshire Elementary, Robert R. Church Elementary, and John P. Freeman Elementary

The community involvement appears to be paying off. Havenview Middle School, the first to enter the Empowerment Zone, improved about five percentage points beyond the bottom 3 percent of the state’s low-performing schools in one year. A. Maceo Walker Middle School, which made its first appearance on the state’s priority list in 2014, is almost out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state.

Parents are noticing, and so is the state. Enrollment is up as much as 21 percent at Havenview Middle since last school year. The Tennessee Department of Education approved the district’s proposal to fold Geeter Middle into the zone when it released its plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools.

“We know that strategy works, there’s no question about that,” said Hopson, who is also a Whitehaven high graduate.

But some teachers and administrators are worried about the next phase of the project. Holmes Road Elementary, the first elementary to join the zone, performed poorly on an exam given earlier this year. Yet the Empowerment Zone is set to add five elementary schools this fall, two of which are already performing well on state tests.

Hopson attributed Holmes Road’s first-year challenges to staffing vacancies when it was “fresh-started.” When a principal is hired, that person can bring on all new teachers and staff. If their evaluation scores are low, or the former employees aren’t offered jobs, they can be assigned to other schools. Some classrooms were covered by temporary teachers who have been reassigned from other schools.

Hunter, the executive principal over the Empowerment Zone, said the public shouldn’t put too much stock in the early progress reports.

“TNReady is the true measuring stick,” he said of the state’s standardized test. Results from this year’s test are expected in the fall.

Eddie Jones, the president of the zone’s leadership council, said it was too soon to tell if the troubles at Holmes Road were growing pains, or were a flaw in the model.

“They just got there. You haven’t had an opportunity to see if it’s working or it’s not,” Jones said.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to expand the lessons learned in the iZone.

Three of the schools being added to the zone next year — Geeter K-8, Robert R. Church Elementary, and Oakshire Elementary — have been fresh started. That strategy has worked well for the Innovation Zone, the flagship program run by the district that has outpaced state schools in boosting test scores — but only if the number of teachers leaving isn’t too high.

Some teachers thought it was too early to discuss a fresh start because they said they were promised extra support.

“The promise wasn’t kept,” said Annette Harris, a teacher who opted to retire instead of re-apply for her job. “What the new people are going to receive is what we were promised,” she said about the coaching.

Hopson said additional teacher coaching at those schools was planned, but after looking closely at testing data, the leadership council and district leaders moved up the timeline for a fresh start.

“Knowing where the data was last year, the community felt like we didn’t have time to figure out if we needed to go all in on the treatment,” he said. “The data suggested that we needed to be more aggressive.”

But Hunter said the only advice promised before schools entered his program was to principals. Additional teacher coaching, he said, is reserved for after the staffing changes. The intent is not a full turnover, he said, but only 35 of 125 teachers have been retained so far at the three schools that have been fresh started for the fall.

“We want the children in those particular settings to have a familiar face they’re used to seeing so they feel comfortable,” he said.

The Empowerment Zone’s scope is expanding next year beyond schools in the high school’s feeder pattern. Some of the schools being added send students on to Fairley High, a state-run charter school. One of those is Geeter Middle, which will become a K-8 school when Manor Lake Elementary students are added to it next year.

Hunter was open about his intentions to keep students out of the state-run district during a meeting in March with parents and teachers at Manor Lake.

“If we sit back and do nothing and are not aggressive in our treatment, then now we become victims or potential victims of the Achievement School District,” he said.

“All they know is the child did not perform well on a test. They don’t understand that the child might not have eaten last night,” he said. “None of those things show up in a number, and it’s totally not fair.”

proposed path

Facing potential loss of control, Adams 14 wants to show the state how the district might improve

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

In meeting after meeting in recent weeks, Adams 14 district leaders repeated the sad statistics about their district’s shortcomings, from poor attendance to low state test scores.

Acknowledging those problems and talking about the district’s failures is taking a toll on staff and on the community. But district leaders hope that by being open they can keep some control over a situation in which they might ultimately end up with none.

Adams 14, a district of about 7,500 students north of Denver, has a hearing before the Colorado State Board of Education on Wednesday at which state officials must decide what steps to order Adams 14 to take to try to finally improve the struggling district.

The state board already approved an improvement plan last year, but it hasn’t shown enough results. Now district officials must answer why — and prove they can do better given more time.

Among the board’s most extreme options, they could choose to dissolve the local district and start a process to combine it with neighboring districts. A review panel has recommended a different, but potentially also drastic option: to turn over management of the district and its schools to an outside group.

Accountability Pathways

  • For more on the state’s options as it decides the fate of Adams 14, click here.

Such a takeover has never happened in Colorado, and it’s not clear exactly what that would look like. Colorado law does not allow for the complete state takeover that has happened in other states, but whatever comes next will represent a new chapter for Adams 14, its control over its schools, and its relationship with the community.

There are varying degrees of authority that the district could be forced to give up. The local Adams 14 school board has pushed district staff to write a proposal that leans towards the more extreme end of the scale, giving up more control than has happened before. The proposal was finalized this week, but given how quickly the district had to create it, there are still missing details that might answer questions about what the plan would mean for Adams 14 staff and students.

There is not much concrete evidence that outside groups can make a difference for low-performing schools or districts, and in some cases, there is evidence they can strip a community of their voice and local power.

For now, what is known is that Adams 14 is proposing to hire two external managers. One would oversee district systems and would have authority over the superintendent, but would still answer to the existing, locally elected Adams 14 board. The second external manager would be hired specifically for Adams City High School, the district’s lowest performing school, which is facing state intervention itself. That manager would have authority over the principal and staff and would answer directly to the Adams 14 board, not the superintendent.

“The district does need help,” Barb McDowell, the district’s union president acknowledges. “We just hope whoever is chosen to be the external manager allows us to remain local and public.”

If the state board allows the district to try its proposed plan, a lot of what comes next could depend on who the district hires as that outside manager.

The groups under consideration include the University of Virginia program known as Partnership for Leaders in Education, the University of Denver, and Mass Insight. Local school board members also asked staff to look into working with KIPP, the national charter network that is proposing to open a school in Adams 14.

The district would go through a bidding process that could start as soon as next week to vet outside groups.

But at least some people, including Bill Hyde, one of the Adams 14 board members, question whether the district should make that selection.

“If the conclusions of the state review panel and the results of the community survey … are accurate and valid regarding Adams 14’s insufficient leadership, vision, and sense of urgency, it seems incredible (that is, not credible) or at least misguided, to ask that same leadership to provide a plan for the district’s future,” Hyde wrote. “I encourage the [State Board of Education] to reserve for itself the decision of selecting an external manager.”

Another option Hyde and teachers union members are supporting would be to select the neighboring district of Mapleton Public Schools as the external manager. Mapleton serves about 9,000 students in a model that requires all students to choose their school and has a state rating of “improvement,” which is one rating above Adams 14’s. This option cedes control but not to a charter organization.

“I have not heard or seen any other proposal that comes close to this one in terms of efficacy, likelihood of success, and simplicity of operation and management,” Hyde wrote. “Choice is something that our community wants, and a portfolio management model would fit our needs in that regard.”

And, Hyde pointed out, it is supported by the teachers union and the community. Yvonne Bradford, director of Central Adams Uniserv, a collection of teachers unions, sent Hyde an outline of Mapleton’s interest. District officials confirmed their interest.

Bradford wrote that Mapleton’s superintendent “wants to help Adams 14 get systems and structures in place. She wants to collaborate with parents and staff at each school to see what kind of school they want and then help make that happen.”

She added: “She does not want a precedent set that outside private money comes into Colorado, takes the money, and the district is no better off when they leave.”

Evidence on the effectiveness of outside groups, especially for turning around an entire district, is limited.

When Adams 14 officials asked experts from the state education department for examples of what external management could look like, one example they pointed to was the turnaround of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The 33-school district in the suburbs of Boston became the first in that state to face state control. In 2012, the state appointed a “receiver” who took over the duties of the district’s superintendent and local governing board.

That appointed leader answered directly to the state commissioner of education and was given authority to bypass the district’s union contract, including to expand the school day and year, change teacher pay, and fire some district staff.

With that oversight, the district partnered with five groups to run six of the lowest performing schools in the district. The partners included the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union group, and some charter schools. The district also contracted with several additional groups that provided more specific resources such as after-school programs or teacher training. The district slowly gave all schools more autonomy and flexibility.

Research on the effects of that turnaround are mixed, although some say it is one of the better examples of a successful district turnaround. Test scores did rise soon after the changes and graduation rates have improved, but some challenges remain. The state is now in the process of transitioning control back to a local board.

Brett Alessi, who helped lead that work and is co-founder of Empower Schools, says that the work outside groups do isn’t special, but can help change the discussions — and the urgency — around change.

“Everything we did in Lawrence, a superintendent and school board can do, the question is why aren’t they doing these things,” Alessi said. “It’s just hard for them. That threat of real action can be a motivator to think about new changes as opposed to just bringing in a new superintendent or a new curriculum.”

Domingo Morel, a political scientist who criticizes state takeovers of school districts from his research on the political impact for local communities, says the key is for state officials to work with communities to empower them instead of taking away their voice.

“Usually when you have a third-party organization, you’re just shielding them from democratic pressure,” Morel said. “When you have communities that want to have a say, those avenues are not there for them, then it becomes highly problematic.”

And, he said, local communities must work together.

“Looking at the state for a solution is probably not going to work,” Morel said. “Based on history, it’s not likely.”

In Adams 14, rising tensions around the state’s possible actions and the upcoming vote on the proposed KIPP school have divided the community.

Many parents who are supportive of KIPP — and drastic state actions — have shied away from the public process after, they say, teachers have confronted them about their views. But other community members, including Timio Archuleta, who stepped away from the school board president role this summer, have criticized parents who “only want to complain” but don’t get involved in their schools.

This year, state officials have sought more public feedback for the State Board’s decision. The district has also held several meetings with different community members and groups to gather feedback.

A group of education advocates this week signed a report that includes a list of recommendations for the district and state to consider as they decide on the fate of Adams 14. Among those recommendations, they ask that the district be pushed to continue to engage the community throughout the process, and to develop systems to better communicate to families their students’ expectations.

Morel said all voices are important in the process for improving schools, but he said the idea that some people don’t care is a myth.

“As parents, we are concerned for our child that particular year,” Morel said. “That voice is more likely to be in favor of a short-term fix. Community organizations that are concerned not just about this year, but 10 years from now, that voice is also important in the conversation.”

Check out the district’s prepared presentation to the state, below, and the full concept paper, here.



options

Will Adams 14 lose autonomy to outside overseer? Here are the state’s options.

File photo of sixth-grade students at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

For the first time in Colorado, the State Board of Education will weigh how to step in when schools or districts are underperforming even after they have tried state-approved plans to improve.

The State Board first directed action for schools and districts that had been underperforming for more than five years — as measured by annual state ratings, highly dependent on state test scores — in the spring of 2017. The State Board approved improvement plans with deadlines for meeting goals.

Next week, the board will decide the fate of a handful which have already failed to meet those deadlines. That includes the Adams 14 school district and its high school, Adams City, and two Pueblo schools: Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy.

Legally, the state lacks authority to take over a district or school, and has limited options in what it can order a district or school to do. The board will consider recommendations from a state review panel, progress reports from the Department of Education, and proposals from school districts.

The board also will accept written public comment until noon Monday.

Below are the options for State Board action, and comments from the state review panel on each option. The board may mix these options as it chooses.

External management
This option would allow a third party, either public or private, to manage a school, a set of district operations, or the entire district. The managing group could have varying levels of authority to make decisions.

Panel recommendations:
Adams 14 district: Recommended. “The current cabinet-level leaders are showing some signs of increased awareness around the need for dramatic change; however, it is clear they need the support and guidance.”

Adams City High School: Recommended. “ACHS needs an external partner that will provide leadership development and support, coaching, ongoing professional development, and talent management, in addition to increasing the instructional support BT is providing. Currently, there is no structure to support the development of leadership capacity to effectively lead the turnaround work at ACHS.”

Heroes Middle School: Continue an existing partnership and add another. “The partnership with [Achievement Network] has not been implemented with fidelity as directed by the State Board. Additional clarity around the role of the partner and the district is needed.” The current partnership is not sufficient, the panel wrote.

Risley International Academy: Continue an existing partnership and add another. The current partner, Achievement Network, does not have decision-making authority, and the school’s leadership is “demonstrably lacking.”

Innovation
The state can direct a school or district to submit a plan to grant them “innovation” status that frees them from some state laws, district rules or union contracts — to remove barriers to improvement or to execute creative ideas. A school must have a plan for what it will do if given freedom not to follow those rules, and the school’s community must approve the plan.

Panel recommendations:
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. “The district has neither adequate leadership capacity nor the infrastructure to support innovation.”

Adams City High School: Not recommended. Innovation could provide some benefits to alleviate constraints the teacher contract currently poses, but “there is minimal evidence” to indicate that the school “has a readiness for innovative approaches or practices that would result in benefits.”

Heroes Middle School: Recommended. Innovation status has created time for group planning time by extending the teacher workday and adding professional development days.

Risley International Academy: Recommended. The district’s group of innovation schools meet monthly and provide support for each other.

Conversion to a charter
The State Board may choose to order one or more schools to be converted to a charter school, which are public schools run by independent boards.

Panel recommendations:
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. The district is not interested in a charter school. “Although a charter would provide options for students, which parents and community members have expressed they would like, the lack of consistency in leadership would make it challenging to adequately plan, implement, and support a charter.”

Adams City High School: Not recommended. “There is limited support for this from the district and the community because ACHS is the only comprehensive high school in the district.”

Heroes Middle School: Not recommended. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change,” and there is no evidence the community would support a charter.

Risley International Academy: Not recommended. Although strongly considering this option, the panel felt “a charter school may be divisive to the community and would not result in more effective outcomes.”

School closure
The State Board may require one or more schools to close, gradually or immediately. The board also can ask that a school stop serving, for instance, just a specific grade level. A closure can be combined with a requirement to open a new school.

Panel recommendations:
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. Because seven of the 11 schools are underperforming, closing them would leave many students without other school options. Schools are already over capacity.

Adams City High School: Not recommended. This is the district’s only comprehensive high school, so there would be no other place for students to attend high school nearby.

Heroes Middle School: Not recommended. “It does not appear that there are better options for middle school students within a reasonable distance.”

Risley International Academy: Not recommended. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes.”

District reorganization
For school districts, this state option would change their boundaries and merge it with neighboring districts. One or more neighboring districts could take take over portions of the district being dissolved.

Panel recommendations:
Adams 14 district: Not recommended. The panel gave “serious consideration” to this
option, but because district reorganization procedures are less clear, the panel felt the district would need help from an outside partner to achieve this.

This is not an option for individual schools.