ESSA plan

Tennessee overhauls approach to low-performing schools under plan sent to Secretary DeVos

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School turnaround work in Tennessee has focused mostly on schools in Memphis but is expected to expand to other cities under the state's new accountability plan.

Tennesseans who have been waiting to see which low-performing schools have improved enough to avoid consequences — and which ones are struggling so much that the state might step in — will have to wait longer.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday that the state will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent in the summer of 2018 instead of this summer as initially planned.

The list will set the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local district-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

The State Department of Education also will elevate the state’s role in overseeing more than 200 “focus schools” struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.

And it’s tweaking criteria for giving A-F grades to each of Tennessee’s 1,800 public schools beginning in mid-2018. The new grading system will put less emphasis on chronic absenteeism than originally planned and more weight on pathways that get students ready for college, career or the military.

The changes were revealed Monday as Tennessee joined more than a dozen states meeting the first deadline to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education in response to a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Tennessee’s plan, which will become effective on July 1 unless U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos takes the unlikely step of turning it down, details how the state will use federal funds for everything from guidance counselors to teacher preparation to arts education.

ESSA was co-authored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and signed into law in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Its intent is to shift the power in public schools to the states — a pivot that some expect to be even more pronounced under the Trump administration.

Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s plan has stayed the course through the transition in Washington, and McQueen said the state “has one of the best ESSA plans in the country.”

“We can say that because of our focus on all students, our high expectations that this will ultimately lead to postsecondary and workforce success, and the collaboration we have had with our education community,” she said.

That collaboration — which began a year ago and has included working groups, town halls, and about 3,000 comments from Tennesseans and stakeholders — precipitated changes to a draft plan that’s been under public review since December. McQueen said the revised final plan strengthens accountability, among other things.

The changes include resetting the priority school timeline to align with the state’s new school grading system. And per state law, the State Department of Education also will issue a new “cusp list” this fall to notify districts and schools at risk.

Tennessee’s plan also clarifies entrance and exit criteria for schools in its pioneering Achievement School District. The charter-reliant turnaround district now has 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville in its portfolio but has been sluggish in meeting targets for improving test scores. If its schools don’t exit due to sustained improvement, they must be returned to their local districts within 10 years. The ASD remains the state’s most intense track for intervention but also will become a last resort under plans announced late last year to give local districts more time to turn around the schools themselves.

McQueen announced that, beginning July 1, all priority and focus schools will be overseen by the state’s new Office of School Improvement. That office will be staffed in the coming months and will report directly to McQueen, which the commissioner said “elevates the work significantly.”

Much of the conversations around the state’s new federal plan have centered on equity.

Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, says ESSA has inspired Tennessee to focus on equity more than ever before, ensuring that students of color and English language learners are accounted for in the state’s accountability systems. “It’s a really strong plan for all kids, and it’s grounded in equity, not just by word only,” said Pupo-Walker, also the senior director of education policy for Conexión Américas.

Others like the addition of graduate readiness as one of five indicators for grading Tennessee schools under ESSA. Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, called the metrics “an innovative way” to connect K-12 accountability to the state’s drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

But some emphasize that Tennessee’s schools always will fall short without adequate funding — something that’s not addressed in the state’s plan.

“We need more resources. We need more wraparound services, and we need a better curriculum,” said Eligah Sledge, an organizer with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift.

The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days to respond to Tennessee’s plan following a review by a team of educators and experts to see if it complies with the new federal law.

Chalkbeat reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”