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After blistering charter critique, de Blasio visits KIPP middle school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio with KIPP co-founder David Levin at KIPP Infinity Middle School.

A month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted charter schools for focusing too heavily on test prep and excluding high-need students, he dropped by KIPP Infinity Middle School for a photo-op with students and the co-founder of one of the country’s largest charter networks.

The mayor did not directly address his earlier comments during the visit, but watched and praised a 17-minute math lesson taught by Jeff Li Thursday afternoon.

“I think it’s really exciting the way you’re leading this classroom,” de Blasio told Li in front of 29 eighth-graders and a handful of KIPP officials, including co-founder David Levin.

The photo-op, orchestrated on the first day of class at the city’s traditional district schools, contrasted sharply with de Blasio’s comments last month criticizing charter schools for emphasizing test prep.

“If that’s where they put a lot of their time and energy, of course it could yield better test scores. But we don’t think that’s good educational policy,” he said in August. “We do not believe in a test-prep heavy model, we do not believe in excluding students with special needs and who are English Language Learners.”

Predictably, those comments infuriated the charter school community, which argued de Blasio was trying to have it both ways: Celebrating the city’s test scores, while claiming charter school increases were due to an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests.

Mayor Bill de Blasio watched a math lesson at KIPP Infinity Middle School
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio watched a math lesson at KIPP Infinity Middle School

That backdrop went unaddressed at today’s charter school visit, though at a morning press conference, he lauded the city’s partnership with the charter network, noting the visit is “just an indication of the fact that there’s plenty of ways that we can work together.”

During de Blasio’s appearance at the school, KIPP officials didn’t miss the opportunity to tout their test scores to the small group of reporters who tagged along. On the most recent state tests, 74 percent of KIPP Infinity Middle School students were proficient in math, and 54 percent were proficient in reading, they said, significantly higher than citywide averages.

School leaders also pointed out that the Manhattan school has a greater proportion of students with disabilities — 25 percent, compared to the nearly 19 percent average in schools citywide.

Asked about de Blasio’s comments last month in the context of this afternoon’s visit, Glenn Davis, assistant principal of Infinity Middle School, said, “Excellent teaching gets excellent results no matter what stats you’re talking about.”

As for test prep? “It’s not the main focus at KIPP.”

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.