anchors aweigh

Even with no model middle school, city expands literacy push

Greg Linton, an 8th grade humanities teacher at M.S. 266, takes notes on his school's literacy data.

Nearly a year after beginning their search for an exceptional middle school to lead a push to boost literacy in struggling schools, city officials have concluded that no school is good enough.

After the city launched its Middle School Quality Initiative last year, it selected two dozen underperforming schools to receive special training and thousands of dollars in program funding. Then it picked more successful schools to be “anchors” that would teach them. Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School became a model for teacher collaboration, and schools were sent to M.S. 244 to learn about using data to detect signs that students are at-risk.

The city also wanted to push the 23 schools on literacy, where their students especially lagged. But officials said they could find no middle school strong enough to use as the emblem of the literacy initiative.

“There isn’t an anchor we could turn to to say, ‘Show us the magic of how it’s all done together,'” said Nancy Gannon, the department official overseeing MSQI.

Nonetheless, as MSQI expanded from 24 schools at first (six with only partial funding) to 49 this year, the department also expanded the initiative’s literacy program. The schools are getting extra funds and monthly trainings focused exclusively on literacy, in a program that officials consider it the most significant part of the citywide initiative.

The initiative to boost literacy takes inspiration from the recommendations of the Carnegie Corporation’s 2004 Reading Next report on elementary and middle school literacy best practices. The report calls for schools to assess students’ reading abilities more frequently, and offer students more strategic tutoring, intensive instruction on writing and reading comprehension instruction. It also calls for teachers to collaborate more in grade-level teams.

Many schools already use these strategies, but Gannon said they will see more gains from using them all at once, after combing through the results of students’ assessments.

It’s a departure from the way the department has handled professional development in the recent past. For the most part, the Bloomberg administration has left principals to choose the strategies they want their teachers to use, getting advice and sometimes strong recommendations from the networks they have chosen to support them. But the schools participating in MSQI are being told exactly which strategies to adopt.

In one major change, all of the MSQI schools are administering a standardized assessment called the “Degrees of Reading Power” three times this year to their sixth- and seventh-graders. Some city schools, particularly those in the Urban Assembly network, have already used the assessment to get details about students’ reading levels. But it has never been required.

Officials said they turned to the DRP assessment because it is a national exam that can diagnose students’ reading levels more consistently than the state’s reading exam, and with more detail.

Earlier this month, nine educators from six schools gathered for a training session. In pairs or alone at computers, the teachers hunkered down to pore over spreadsheets of data from their schools that included students’ names, their performance on the most recent state reading exam, and their “Degrees of Reading Power” scores.

On the spreadsheets, many of the middle school students’ rows were shaded red, meaning their performance was at or below a second-grade level. Chumney said she wanted to help the teachers draw meaningful conclusions from the data in front of them that afternoon without becoming overwhelmed by the number of underperforming students.

“When people open the screen they’re completely immersed in it, but it’s an emotional thing for them. Their child’s name is in red,” she said. “For many of our schools that’s a significant number of people. when they see it for the first time it can be really jolting.”

With that data, Gannon said the participating schools are learning how to help students at the high and low ends of the achievement spectrum. To do so, they are studying the areas where their students struggle, whether it is comprehension, coding, or fluency, and then giving them different supports, either through guided reading practice or use of a remedial program called the Wilson Reading System.

Among the schools that participated in MSQI last year, seventh and eighth graders’ literacy proficiency increased, from  36.5 to 43.3 percent for seventh graders, and from 35 to 39 percent for eighth graders, on the state’s annual English tests. But Gannon downplayed the gains, which were very slightly steeper than those seen across the city, noting that the state tests change every year and will become much more difficult in 2013, making the scores less useful than the DRP results.

At M.S. 22 in the Bronx, which participated in the literacy initiative last year, teachers adopted different supports for students just above and below proficiency on state tests, according to Omolade Otulaja, a special education teacher who sits on M.S. 22’s literacy team.

“With extra targeted instruction we were able to help the 2.5s move to a 3. And we were even able to move the 3.25s up a little,” Otulaja told the group of teachers at the training session. “We felt the students already had a tool box of skills, and it was just a matter of taking the kids to the next level. Once the students reached that 2.5 threshold, we were able to help that group make the biggest increases.”

Last year, the percentage of M.S. 22 students who scored proficient in reading inched upwards, from 11 percent to 14 percent. That improvement roughly matched the city’s overall increase in reading test scores.

Donalda Chumney, MSQI’s professional development coordinator, said M.S. 22 was setting a good example of the initiative’s philosophy of getting teachers to think about what students need based on their ability levels and the particular ways they excel or struggle.

“Saying we should be doing everything better with everyone all the time is a very tall order,” Chumney said. “If we can get people to the place where they chose a strategy and notice what happens in that class, then we see a lot more sustainable growth. [Teachers should be] thinking about which steps we’ve taken that have and haven’t yielded the outcomes we’ve wanted.”

To break out of a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy instruction with a limited staff, Otulaja said her school has set up “clinics” three days a week this year where students can get short bursts of one-on-one attention. “The challenge is definitely setting goals and making sure we’re creating more fluent, comprehensive readers,” she said.

According to Gannon, the literacy initiative’s secondary goal is to build the expertise of middle school teachers who teach literacy, but may not have much of a background in it.

“Many, many teachers are content specialists,” she said. “With the core group we’re building in reading expertise so students are more accurately diagnosed and supported.”

Gannon said schools would ideally use a one-on-one method, where students read aloud to the teacher to practice reading and assess comprehension skills, but “that takes an inordinate amount of time,” she said. “We’re advocating a quick assessment of what one needs to go deeper, and then looking at the subset that scores significantly below grade-level.”

At the training, Gillian Parker, a literacy lead teacher at M.S. 254, looked closely at the bars of red on her computer screen before turning to Eurgiena Douglas, her MSQI coach. This seminar was different from the typical professional development sessions Parker and her colleagues attend, Douglas explained, because she and the other teachers were working with real data from their schools, not samples.

“This confirmed my understanding that we have a considerably large amount of students reading below grade level. The next step is to address these areas of need,” Parker said, before launching into a litany of questions that, according to the department, no school has adequately answered about literacy.

“I see that there are issues, and I’m thinking how do we begin? Where do we begin? Once I get back to the building and reflect, I’ll share it with my staff and see what we need to do.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede