Turn It Around

Why Denver Public Schools thinks “Year Zero” may be the answer to rocky turnarounds

Jesse Tang won’t start his new job as the principal at Schmitt Elementary School for more than a year.

But by this May, he had already made the trip from Massachusetts, where he was finishing graduate school, to Denver, where he met with students and staff at Schmitt, more than half a dozen times.

Tang’s visits represent a shift in Denver’s approach to school turnaround. Turnaround entails making dramatic changes to staff and programs at a school, with the help of federal or district funds, in an effort to improve students’ outcomes.

One of the first steps in the district’s efforts to rapidly improve struggling schools has often been hiring a new principal. But while those principals have usually had just months to make big decisions about the future of the schools they are tasked with improving, Tang has an entire school year to get to know the school and create a plan before taking the reins. In the meantime, Cindy Miller, an interim principal, will be running the day-to-day operations of the school.

Denver Public Schools is referring to the approach as its “Year Zero” turnaround strategy. Harrington, Schmitt, and Goldrick, three elementary schools in southwest Denver, will all have both an interim and a “Year Zero” principal next year.

The DPS board will vote on whether to approve redesign plans that give principals the ability to select all staff at those schools and to change academic programs at the schools this Thursday. The board will also approve the 2015-16 budget, which includes funds to support having two administrators at each school.

The board is also planning to vote on a redesign plan for Valverde Elementary. Valverde already has a new principal, Drew Schultze, but teachers at the school will also be asked to reapply for their jobs at the end of next year and Schultze will also have the ability to make changes to the school’s current program.

The overall goals of turnaround haven’t changed. Denver Public Schools has identified the four schools for improvement efforts due to persistently low academic achievement and other signs that the schools need a change. At Schmitt, just about a third of students are on grade level in math and reading. Nearly 50 percent of students zoned to the school choose to attend other schools.

But the hope is that giving school leaders more time to prepare, plan, and build relationships before turnaround will both help school leaders’ jobs be more sustainable and improve the culture and outcomes at turnaround schools.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to digest the lessons we’ve learned from turnaround efforts so far,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. “One of the things we saw that made the biggest difference was the quality of the plan that’s created; the ownership of that plan by a leader; and the ability of the community to have a voice in the process.”

The idea of having more time for preparation is not entirely new: Some of the district’s other new schools, including DCIS: Fairmont, have given future principals a planning year before starting their schools.

Cordova said that the relative stability in those schools, compared to high rates of teacher turnover and lagging results in some other turnaround schools, “helped us start thinking about ‘Year Zero,’ to give principals a chance to plan, to engage with the community, to build the right structures, and hit the ground running with that plan.”

The district has had a high rate of principal turnover in recent years, especially in its high-needs schools.

Cordova said teachers in these turnaround schools will also know more about what they’re getting into before they are asked to reapply for their jobs and that community members will have a chance to get to know the principal and give input on the future of their schools.

At a work session of the district’s board in June, Tang, Schultze and the interim and “Year Zero” principals at Harrington, and Goldrick shared their plans for the schools. Board members were optimistic.

“I’ve got a big smile on my face,” said Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver.

The outcome of the upcoming turnarounds remain to be seen.

But Tang said that the chance to have the extra year to prepare had made a significant impact on his decision to come to Denver and his ability to plan. “I have the professional space to do all of this research, listening, and diagnostic work with a partner who has years of experience and knows the DPS system,” he said.

“I’m getting to know individuals and communities at this level that completely informs the work that I do in a way that I might not have an opportunity if the timeline were much shorter,” he said.

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.