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.”

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: