Who Is In Charge

State ed boards approve “endorsed” diplomas

Colorado’s two statewide education boards on Thursday approved specifications for an “endorsed” high school diploma that would guarantee students automatic admission to some state colleges and universities.

GraduationBut the new diplomas will be optional for school districts, and they may spread slowly through the state. The Aurora Public Schools has been working on such a diploma and may award them next spring.

Creation and approval of criteria for the endorsed diploma was required by a landmark 2008 law, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K). Among other things, that law required creation of new state content standards and tests and also greater integration of K-12 and higher education, including steps to make it easier for students to move from high school to college and to reduce the need for remediation.

A task force of educators has been working on the project, but the law required the elected State Board of Education and the appointed Colorado Commission on Higher Education to jointly approve the criteria for what’s formally called the “Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness High School Diploma Endorsement.”

The only no vote among the 15 members of the two boards who were present was SBE member Deborah Scheffel. She said after the meeting she opposed the endorsed diploma because it creates what she characterized as a “two-tier system.”

“I think it complicates the system that’s already tough for kids to navigate,” she said.

But Happy Haynes of CCHE dismissed concerns that endorsed diplomas would divide students into two tracks, saying, “It’s not the only way for students to get into college.”

She also said remaining details about the program can be worked out. “I think this is a matter of us taking action and us getting out of the way.”

Some members who voted yes also had questions – and suggestions.

CCHE member Jim Polsfut didn’t much like the long name, arguing the new diploma should have a name that would sound more appealing to young people.  “Is there a way of doing it with a little more punch?” he asked. “It may not be embraced by students unless it has a little marketing punch to it.”

And SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman wondered if some districts would be reluctant to use endorsed diplomas because of the potential cost and time involved and the potential burden on high school counselors.

Luis Colon, a new CCHE member, wondered, “Has anyone asked the students how they feel about this?”

“It is probably our students who are pushing hardest” for endorsed diplomas, said Ron Marostica, assistant superintendent in the 2,500-student Sterling district. Successful implementation also will require active involvement by teachers, Marostica said. Like Aurora, Sterling has been working on the endorsed diploma project.

Misti Ruthven, a Department of Education staffer who is working on the project, noted that the task force is continuing its work and will take note of the issues raised by the two boards.

Students who earn the endorsed diplomas would be guaranteed to meet minimum admissions requirements for Metro State University, Colorado State University-Pueblo, Adams State University, Western State Colorado University and community and technical colleges.

Such students would receive “priority consideration” at the state’s more selective campuses, including the University of Colorado System, CSU-Fort Collins, the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado Mesa University and Fort Lewis College.

To earn an endorsed diploma, a student must satisfy four indicators:

  • Readiness in math and English language arts
  • Completion of an individual career and academic plan
  • Demonstration of proficiency in 21st Century skills
  • Demonstration of mastery of academic content in three subject areas

The criteria include detailed descriptions of the kinds of test scores, grades, classes and activities that a student needs to achieve in order to fulfill the four indicators. Get those details here.

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: