Charter hopefuls

Thirteen applicants vie to open charter schools with Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Michelle McKissack, a board member of Crosstown High School Inc., speaks in May with supporters of the proposed new high school for midtown Memphis.

While Shelby County Schools revoked the charters of four schools this year, the district also has been taking applications for new charter schools, viewed as a potential tool to drive up the quality of public education in Memphis.

Thirteen applications are under review as the school board prepares to approve or deny them in August. They include a homegrown, philanthropically supported group seeking to establish the proposed Crosstown High School in midtown, as well as three out-of-state charter networks currently operating Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Quality will be central to the screening process, according to Brad Leon, the district’s strategy and innovation chief.

The district’s request for applications declared that Shelby County Schools is “only interested in authorizing charter schools that we believe can reach the top quartile of performance in the state.”

That’s a high bar for a district that has a high concentration of schools in Tennessee’s bottom quartile. But in 2014-15, Shelby County Schools saw academic gains in every subject except reading, and administrators are looking for engines that can help continue that trajectory.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are tuition-free. In Tennessee, they are mostly authorized by local school districts.

In Memphis, the prospect of opening new charter schools creates public perception challenges amid budget constraints and the recent closure of four district-authorized charter schools for low performance. But Leon said the focus needs to stay on quality.

“We’ve got to do both. We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options,” he said.

Leon will make his recommendations to the school board during a June 21 work session. Operators can amend their applications based on the feedback before decisions are made in August.

Inherent in the screening process will be the search for operators who can can help the district reach its goals under Destination 2025. The strategic plan aims by 2025 to have 80 percent of seniors college or career-ready, 90 percent of students graduating on time, and 100 percent of college or career-ready seniors enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity.

The request for applications emphasized that the “most urgent area of need relates to reading language arts at all tested grade levels.” Increasing the district’s ACT scores also was cited as an area of need in preparing students for post-secondary opportunities.

"We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options. "Brad Leon, strategy and innovation chief

Leon said a common theme among applications is an emphasis on STEM education — or science, technology, engineering and math. While the district did not solicit that particular focus, national trends have shifted toward those areas to prepare students for projected job growth in those fields.

The applicants include five vying to open schools in Hickory Hill, an area in southeast Memphis that has seen population growth in recent years.

Three national operators authorized in Memphis by the state-run ASD are seeking local authorization under Shelby County Schools: Green Dot, Pathways in Education and Scholar Academies.

Shelby County Schools and the ASD already have several operators in common, including KIPP, Gestalt, Freedom Prep and Promise Academy.

The applicants are:

  • Crosstown High School Inc. — The college prep high school proposed for midtown Memphis would feature partnerships with noted health care organizations slated to operate in the newly renovated Crosstown Concourse development.
  • Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the ASD.
  • Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator has two charters under the ASD that opened in 2014.
  • Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be an elementary and middle school in South Memphis seeking a full enrollment of 675 students.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school would focus on science technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as developing leadership skills, under the helm of Tamika Carwell, a former principal and teacher with Memphis City Schools.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The elementary school proposed for Hickory Hill would be the fifth by the operator, known for weaving business and economics across curriculum.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The middle school in Hickory Hill would complete the feeder pattern of the operator, which already has elementary and high schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
  • Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would have an emphasis on math and literacy, doubling class time in both subjects and offering classes in life skills.
  • The LeFlore Foundation — The Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would operate in Cordova, serving grades K-5 with an emphasis on STEM subjects.
  • Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located in close proximity to the South Main Arts District.
  • Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — “The” Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis with an emphasis on literacy.
  • Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop first-generation college-goers.
  • Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.

Chalkbeat reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.