Who Is In Charge

Legislature put on notice

A campaign intended to nudge the 2013 legislature into taking education funding seriously kicked off Wednesday with student speakers urging citizens to join the effort.

Haylley Stromberg
Douglas County high school student Hayley Stromberg
Dubbed 2013: Year of the Student, the effort is seeking individual and organizational endorsements and their commitment to contact legislators.

The hope is “to join together the voices of the hundreds of thousands of Colorado’s who support public education,” said Douglas County 9th grader Hayley Stromberg, the lead-off speaker for the Capitol news conference. “The story of the 2013 legislature is ours to write.” Stromberg leads an effort named the Douglas County Kids Campaign.

“A Call to Legislative Action” petition will be presented to lawmakers and the governor after the November election. The campaign so far has signed up more than 50 community and advocacy groups.

Five other students, all college aged, also spoke at the event. Zeke Johnson, a University of Colorado Boulder senior, said rising costs are forcing students to go out of state. “Colorado cannot afford to have our best and brightest seeking education elsewhere.”

The Year of the Student effort launches at a time when education funding remains a major unresolved question hanging over the state.

Last December a Denver District judge ruled for the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding case, finding that Colorado’s K-12 funding system violates the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” school system.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it’s pending. (The state doesn’t have to file its first brief in the case until next month.)

With the district court ruling on ice because of the appeal, there wasn’t much talk about school funding during the 2012 legislative session, to the frustration of advocates for increased school spending.

Some Democrats wanted to add a Lobato cost study to the 2012-13 school funding bill, but that amendment was withdrawn in committee in the face of warnings that it would sabotage the whole school finance act.

Republicans introduced a late resolution that would have had the legislature intervene in the case as a friend of the court on the state’s side. But that measure was killed in committee because it had no chance of passing the full legislature.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, promised to introduce legislation to reform some elements of the finance system but didn’t pull the trigger, saying at session’s end that the issue wasn’t ready for legislative consideration. Johnston has been working with a study group named the Colorado School Finance Partnership, which reportedly is regrouping on the issue.

Year of the Student organizers hope to convince the 2013 session to do what lawmakers didn’t do this year.

Students at Capitol news conference
A Colorado map made of puzzle pieces was used as a visual aid at the June 13, 2012, news conference.
And education in general has emerged as a major subject of concern for participants in TBD Colorado, a statewide effort launched by Hickenlooper to gather citizen views on major policy issues (see story).

The Year of the Student campaign was organized by Great Education Colorado, an advocacy group that long has pushed for improved school funding.

Late last year Great Education mounted an online petition campaign urging state officials not to appeal the Lobato ruling. The group also was a major backer of Proposition 103, the school-and-college funding increase defeated by voters last year. And in 2010 Great Education backed an unsuccessful legislative proposal to exempt school funding from the limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Lisa Weil, Great Education’s policy director, said Wednesday, “There wasn’t a sense of urgency” about education funding in the legislature this year” and that “It’s going to be necessary to have legislators hear from constituents” to change that in 2013. “We want to make sure that session will focus. … We’ve kicked this thing down the road for the last time.”

The campaign isn’t planning to propose specific changes to the finance system; it just wants lawmakers to take up the issue, Weil said.

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: