A Hard Bargain

Incoming Boys and Girls principal gets big bonus, option to return to old school

PHOTO: Courtesy of Randy Andujar/Teaching Matters
Principal Michael Wiltshire tried turning around Boys and Girls High School while still overseeing Medgar Evers College Preparatory School.

The veteran principal tapped to rescue troubled Boys and Girls High School will receive a $25,000 bonus for taking on the tough assignment, officials confirmed Tuesday. But in an unusual arrangement, he will still play an important role at the successful school he led for over a decade — and where he has the option of returning next year.

Michael Wiltshire, the new principal of Boys and Girls, has told parents that he will continue to spend at least 20 percent of his time focused on Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, the Crown Heights school he helped raise to prominence over the past 13 years. Chancellor Carmen Fariña told parents that Wiltshire will take on a new title at Medgar Evers — “master principal.”

“I will be there every day really,” Wiltshire told Chalkbeat, adding that he would offer oversight and input on important matters. “Medgar Evers is my heart.”

Wiltshire’s official title at Boys and Girls is “executive principal,” a position that comes with a $25,000 bonus. Former Chancellor Joel Klein established the role in 2008 as a way to draw seasoned principals to ailing schools, but the school-improvement strategy was largely abandoned just two years later. The prestigious position typically requires a three-year commitment, but Wiltshire appears to have negotiated the option to return full time to his former school after just one year, according to a principals union spokeswoman.

That escape clause, and his dual leadership roles — rare, if not unheard of, among school leaders — reflect the lengths to which the city has gone to secure a new leader for Boys and Girls, a school that netted three straight F’s on its school-progress reports under its previous principal, who resigned abruptly last month. It also reflects Wiltshire’s commitment to Medgar Evers, where he has earned acclaim during his long tenure as principal.

“That was one of the options they negotiated with him,” said Al Vann, a former city councilman and member of the Boys and Girls advisory board. “He wanted to maintain a relationship with Medgar Evers.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman insisted that Wiltshire is not the principal of both schools, and noted that an assistant principal, Angella Smith, has been named acting principal of Medgar Evers. But Wiltshire and Fariña both assured parents at an emergency meeting last Thursday at Medgar Evers that Wiltshire would remain active at the school as a “master principal,” according to a parent who attended the meeting.

Boys and Girls High School is one of the city's lowest performing schools, which received three straight F's on its most recent school-progress reports.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School is one of the city’s lowest performing schools, which received three straight F’s on its most recent school-progress reports.

Wiltshire explained that he would spend about 75 to 80 percent of his time at Boys and Girls and the rest at Medgar Evers, according to the parent, Tricia Mecklembourg. (He repeated that estimate during a meeting with Boys and Girls parents Monday evening, according to an attendee.) Fariña explained to the Medgar Evers parents that, “This has never been done before, so they are working out all the logistics,” Mecklembourg added.

“He’s definitely still at Medgar,” said Mecklembourg, a former parent association president who praised Wiltshire. “That’s his mission and that’s his vision.”

Caster Hall, president of Boys and Girls’ parent association and brother of the school’s outspoken ex-principal, said he was willing to give Wiltshire a chance in his new dual role. But he also hinted at the challenges the arrangement could create. For instance, he said he would refuse to refer to Wiltshire as “executive principal” in letters to parents to avoid confusing them, and would bring up Wiltshire’s option to leave after one year at the school’s next leadership meeting.

“I don’t want the kids to think that they’re going to lose him once they get to know him,” Hall said.

Wiltshire, a former Boys and Girls teacher, said his appointment would allow the schools to try out a new peer-support system. Medgar Evers staff could share their curriculum materials, help coach the struggling school’s teachers, and even allow some Boys and Girls students to take classes at their school, he said. That potential partnership echoes a proposal the city made in a recent federal grant application, where it said struggling schools would be matched with higher-performing “sister schools.”

“Mr. Wiltshire has proven to be an effective principal and he’ll continue to work closely with his former school community to share best practices and support where necessary,” said the education department spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

As head of Boys and Girls, Wiltshire will try to reproduce the model that has enabled Medgar Evers to more than double its enrollment over the past decade while achieving a remarkable 97 percent graduation rate, he said Monday. (Boys and Girls’ graduation rate, by contrast, was 44 percent.)

The grades 6-to-12 school features extended days, Saturday classes, mandatory summer school, and strong sports and arts programs, Wiltshire said. The middle-school students study Mandarin and take some of the state exams required to graduate high school. Many of the high school students enroll in Advanced Placement classes — about 400 of the roughly 930 students took AP exams last year, Wiltshire said — and some earn enough college credits to graduate with two-year college degrees, he said.

The demanding academic program is made possible at least in part by the school’s admission policy. Incoming sixth-graders are accepted based on their state test scores and entrance-exam results, and the high school gives priority to students who attended Medgar Evers’ middle school. About 100 of this year’s 240 freshmen came from within the school, Wiltshire said.

Some parents and staff at Boys and Girls have already questioned whether that model will take hold in a school that accepts all applicants and whose poor reputation keeps it from attracting many high-achieving students. Last year, about 22 percent of Boys and Girls students had disabilities and 16 percent had been held back before. At Medgar Evers, just 3 percent of students had disabilities in 2013 and only 1.4 percent had previously been held back.

“A lot of our kids aren’t the kids he would have taken at his school,” a Boys and Girls teacher said.

Wiltshire said that when he took over Medgar Evers, the majority of students entered below grade level. He also said many students come from similar backgrounds as those at Boys and Girls, though he acknowledged that they often have stronger academic records.

How the city will measure Wiltshire’s success is unclear, since the administration has yet to release its plans for struggling schools. The state, which has designated Boys and Girls as “out of time,” expects the school to meet certain goals this year, possibly including increased attendance and graduation rates, Wiltshire said.

A state education department spokesman said the school will be evaluated on “a wide variety of metrics” and that deadlines to meet targets are still being worked out with the city. The state can order districts to close struggling schools that do not improve within a certain period, said the spokesman, Tom Dunn.

Wiltshire said he hopes to help the school meet the state’s targets and restore its status as a “premier high school.”

“It’s a steep challenge,” he said. “But I’m going to try my best.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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 [email protected]

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