blurred lines

Neighborhood schools aren’t always neighborly in Memphis. Here’s how one group is fostering collaboration

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Teachers from schools in midtown Memphis and Frayser practice Facing History and Ourselves activities during a symposium Tuesday at the University of Memphis.

Sandra Boyer, a teacher at Central High School, has watched her midtown Memphis students benefit from curriculum designed to break down stereotypes and prejudice. Now, thanks to a new initiative from the nonprofit organization that produces the curriculum, she and her students will have more opportunities to demonstrate those practices with their counterparts in another part of the city.

Facing History and Ourselves, the group behind the curriculum, launched its Memphis Neighborhood Schools Network on Tuesday at the University of Memphis, where it brought together educators from 11 participating schools. The schools — five from midtown and six in Frayser — will collaborate more in the future for faculty training and student programs. The Facing History curriculum also will be introduced to the Frayser schools, which have a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students.

“Our kids tend to stay with our kids, Frayser kids tend to stay with Frayser kids, etc.,” Boyer said. “Memphis has a history of our neighborhoods not getting along. Maybe that’s because we never meet each other. We can change that.”

Schools participating in the network in Frayser are:

  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Memphis Business Academy High
  • Memphis Business Academy Middle
  • Trezevant High
  • MLK College Preparatory High
  • Westside Achievement Middle

Midtown schools in the network are:

  • Bellevue Middle
  • Central High
  • Crosstown High (beginning in 2018)
  • Maxine Smith STEAM Academy
  • Snowden

Facing History leaders hope the network will strengthen the organization’s presence in more schools serving low-income communities.

“Too often, children in low-socioeconomic neighborhoods don’t get access to something like Facing History and Ourselves at their school,” said Steve Becton, associate program director for urban education for the Memphis chapter of Facing History and Ourselves. “Equitable allocation of resources is one of the big challenges for Memphis. We know all students deserve the choice of great, rigorous programs like ours.”

As part of the network, midtown schools will help Frayser schools introduce the new curriculum.

“Part of education equity for us is breaking schools out of their isolation,” Becton said. “Kids in Frayser should be talking to kids in Midtown. They have lots to teach each other. And it’s not just kids. You have a Frayser charter principal talking to a principal from Maxine Smith Academy. That would usually never happen.”

The organization already has a student leadership program that brings together teens from 22 high schools, and Facing History staff want to build on that approach.

Historically, the Massachusetts-based organization has been perceived as focusing mainly on social science and language arts curriculums, but the Memphis network will highlight a “whole school” philosophy that includes training faculty in culturally responsive teaching and an emphasis on parent engagement, Becton said.

The Memphis chapter serves more than 500 schools in Tennessee and Kentucky.


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said 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 interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“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 were: 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. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.