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.

Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.