Who Is In Charge

Literacy bill advances on 10-3 vote

The House Education Committee Monday gave a full hearing – more than seven hours – to House Bill 12-1238, the proposal that would require improved literacy programs in the early elementary grades, create a preference for retention of third graders with weak reading skills and add early literacy results to the factors in the state’s accountability system for rating schools.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper testifies, flanked by sponsors Rep. Tom Massey (left) and Rep. Millie Hamner, center.
After dozens of witnesses and extensive committee discussion, the bill passed on a 10-3 bipartisan vote. The only no votes were Democrats Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, Judy Solano of Brighton and Nancy Todd of Aurora, all veteran committee members and retired teachers.

The committee approved some amendments to the Colorado Early Literacy Act, but it was clear from both witness testimony and committee discussion that lots of people want more work done on the bill.

Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said, “We still have amendments we’re working on. … There’s still a lot to be done. This is a work in progress.”

The serious tone of the hearing and the level of detail and analysis provided by many witnesses were in contrast to the rushed atmosphere and uninformed discussion that sometimes mark committee hearings.

Nobody’s flatly against HB 12-1238; witness after witness agreed that early literacy is a moral imperative and essential to the subsequent academic success of students.

The bill is being pushed by a coalition of education reform groups and business groups, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Stand for Children and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The bill is being heavily promoted by lobbyists for those groups.

The Hickenlooper administration supports the bill, and the measure’s sponsors include a bipartisan mix of influential lawmakers in both houses.

Hickenlooper himself was the leadoff witness, telling his personal story of dyslexia and being held back in the seventh grade.

“I felt strongly that there shouldn’t be mandatory retention” in the bill, Hickenlooper said. But, he added, “There is no stronger indicator of how a kid is going to do in school” than being able to read by third grade.

But a long list of education interest groups, school districts, education, special education and literacy professionals have concerns with the bill and raised lots of polite concerns during the hours of testimony Monday.

The highest profile provision of the bill is its preference for holding back third graders who have the weakest reading skills, called “significant reading deficiency” in the bill. That standard would be defined by the State Board of Education.

For a third grader who falls in that category, parents, teachers and school administrators would be required to discuss and decide whether to hold that student back. If they decided a student shouldn’t be held back, the case would be reviewed by the district superintendent, who could decide to hold a student back.

In its original form, as proposed last year, the bill would have made retention mandatory. But there was heavy opposition to that – and reported concern from the governor’s office – so Massey dropped the mandatory idea.

Even the bill’s current retention preference raised concern for many witnesses and some committee members. A couple of mothers brought their children along to the witness table to oppose the bill’s retention provisions.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
After testimony ended and committee deliberation began, Solano proposed an amendment to strip the retention provisions of the bill. It failed on a 5-8 vote.

The other concern that dominated the hearing was the potential cost of the program. The current version of the bill proposes taking about $5.4 million from tobacco settlement monies and from the existing Read to Achieve program.

Massey and cosponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent, said they’re looking for additional funding. Revenue from state school lands reportedly is being eyed as a source of funds.

Solano and Todd kept raising questions about cost, and several school district witnesses made the same point.

Finally, Rep. Carole Murray said, “I guess I’m getting a little uncomfortable with all the questions about money. Why should it take (more) money to teach them … the one thing they should be getting in school?”

Harrison district Superintendent Mike Miles testified in favor of the bill. His district has a policy to eliminate social promotion in five years by holding students back in third, fifth and eighth grades.

Asked about the cost, Miles said, “It does take a lot to get a student to read when they’re far behind, but it can be done. It does take some resources. We’re doing it … mostly because we prioritize our funding in support of early literacy.”

Other witnesses raised concerns about how the bill might affect special education students, about the data reporting requirements it would impose on districts and about how the bill would integrate – or conflict with – the state’s overall system of academic standards, testing and school accountability.

And late in the hearing, one witness even questioned whether the bill is necessary.

Republican Peggy Littleton, a former State Board of Education who’s now an El Paso County commissioner, said, “Let’s use what we already have in place,” citing the existing Colorado Basic Literacy Act and the state content standards. What’s really needed, Littleton said, is better training of teachers in teaching literacy.

The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.


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

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: