Who Is In Charge

Is Round 2 Colorado’s best shot?

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien Wednesday continued to sound cautious about Colorado’s chances in the Race to the Top, telling legislators the state may have a better chance in the second round of competition for a share of $4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

Dwight Jones and Barbara O'BriendColorado Tuesday filed its first-round application, asking for $377 million. (See detailed story.)

“I’ve been trying to manage expectations a bit about phase 1 because they may select only two or three states, and there are states that are ahead of Colorado,” O’Brien told members of the House and Senate education committees and other lawmakers during an early-morning meeting Wednesday.

“There are states that are ahead of just because of their ability to invest … [but] we continue to be optimistic about chances” in the second round, O’Brien said.

When they unveiled the plan on Tuesday, O’Brien, Gov. Bill Ritter and education Commissioner Dwight Jones all were careful to note that the competition is stiff and that Colorado might not win a grant but still had created a good blueprint for future education reform with its R2T plan.

“It’s not perfect, but we think it’s a really solid plan for Colorado. … It’s a really good plan for Colorado no matter what,” O’Brien said Wednesday.

Jones also spoke to legislators Wednesday, and he defended the Ritter administration’s decision to put development of a new educator evaluation system in the hands of an appointed commission that won’t report back to the legislature until September 2011.

“I know we continue to get criticism in this area, and frankly I don’t agree with the criticism,” Jones said. He said the commission process is “an opportunity to get to a place we all want to get to.”

Many state R2T applications seem to fall into one of two models – collaborative or top-down – and in the last two days Colorado officials have clearly said they chose the collaborative model because they believe it will make reform more achievable. (For more background on the issue, see this EdNews analysis.)

“We have taken a collaborative approach; the governor demanded it,” Jones said. “Hopefully the folks who are scoring our application will take note.”

Jones added later, “’Some may not think it is bold enough, but I think we will be one of the few states that will get it done.”

The Colorado plan proposes to significantly increase math and reading proficiency among Colorado students by 2014 and to trim achievement gaps, which now are about 30 percent, to 10 percent, Jones noted.

Several legislators used the meeting to raise concerns about favorite issues.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, lamented that the state’s application doesn’t say enough about the role of parents. “I would encourage you to think a little more broadly about parent involvement,” she told Jones.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of House Education, agreed with that and also complained that the R2T program doesn’t place enough emphasis on “a well-rounded curriculum” or the arts. (Merrifield is a retired music teacher.)

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and House Ed vice chair, in turn agreed with Merrifield and also was concerned that R2T doesn’t seem to place much emphasis on the importance of early childhood education.

O’Brien said the federal government is expected to roll out a separate early childhood grant program in the spring, and “We are going to be applying for that.”

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and a charter school administrator, asked what the department was doing to ensure charters get a fair shot at R2T money. The program will split grants equally between the state and local school districts. King said his heard complaints that some charters have been shut out of Title I grants, a separate part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Jones said, “I’m not sure I would say charter schools have been excluded” and that “the department does have an obligation to intervene” if that’s the case.

O’Brien and Jones explained that if Colorado passes an initial review, state officials will be invited to Washington in March to make the case for their bid.

That caught the attention of Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who asked, “So that’s an appropriate place to report on progress we’ve made since Jan. 19?”

Johnston’s planned teacher evaluation and tenure bill has been somewhat sidelined by Ritter’s commission plan, and the senator is now considering what kind of legislation to introduce instead.

Do your homework

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: