Dueling pathways

McQueen’s plan would interrupt Hopson’s for improving one Memphis school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey watches after kindergarteners in a 2017 graduation ceremony at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in Memphis.

When Superintendent Dorsey Hopson allotted extra funding last year for more than a dozen low-performing Memphis schools, the idea was to provide more resources and a chance for improvement before making any decisions about closing them.

After all, Shelby County Schools has learned a lot about how to improve academics at struggling schools through its own Innovation Zone, a school turnaround program that invests significant resources and even lengthens the school day to try to change a school’s trajectory.

But a new state intervention plan outlined this month by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen would stop Hopson’s “critical focus” plan in its tracks for one school.

McQueen is recommending that the district close Hawkins Mill Elementary because of low test performance and enrollment, a decision reinforced by a recent school visit from state officials.

Her recommendation comes just as Hawkins Mill Principal Antonio Harvey is in the first year of rolling out a school improvement plan that includes several new hires, team projects, and a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering, and math.

School board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes the Frayser school, said the state should focus on how to support the work already happening there.

“They have a plan in place. The school year is not over,” Love told Chalkbeat. “Before this recent test, the school was improving. Yes, it did dip with the new test, but the whole district dipped.”

The divergent plans set the stage for another potential showdown between local and state officials over the best way to address a chronically underperforming school. While the state is seeking to work more collaboratively with local leaders, McQueen’s plan shows that the state will get a greater say in interventions already in place.

Shelby County’s school board is scheduled to revisit parts of the state’s plan on Tuesday evening after discussing it last week for the first time.

Memphis public schools have had an especially rocky relationship with the State Department of Education since 2012 when Tennessee’s turnaround district launched and began taking over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigning them to charter operators to turn around.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

But the state’s new accountability plan, developed in response to a 2015 federal education law, is meant to empower local districts with time and resources to improve academics. That would slow down state’s heavy-handed method that has been the norm for the last six years.

In most ways, the state is staying true to its new commitment. Across Tennessee, only one school — American Way Middle, also in Memphis — is on track for charter conversion through the state-run Achievement School District, compared to five the state recommended in 2015. And for the first time in the ASD’s history, the state is giving Shelby County Schools the option of bringing on its own charter operator for American Way instead of relying on the ASD.

As for Hawkins Mill, there are a lot of unknowns under Tennessee’s new era of school improvement. It’s unclear if Hopson’s critical focus plan meets the state’s standard of a “recognized, evidence-based intervention” that allows for more leeway from the state. And it’s unclear how much progress Hawkins Mill has made so far. Last week, district officials were not immediately able to provide data from the school’s ongoing assessments that are designed to show growth prior to students taking state tests this spring.

(Under Hopson’s critical focus plan, in order to avoid closure in three years, Hawkins Mill and others would need to score between a 3 and 5 on the district’s new grading system for schools and increase enrollment to at least 70 percent capacity.)

Either way, since McQueen’s recommendations were mostly based on data up until last school year, any progress at Hawkins Mill this year would not carry as much weight. Plus, the school already had been considered for state takeover in 2015. One major factor is that the school has had the same principal for more than three years — generally enough time to chart a change in a school’s trajectory, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees school improvement initiatives for the district.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast cited multiple factors for the department’s recommendation, “including two cycles on the Priority school list, data that indicates it will be on the Priority school list again in 2018, discussions with the district, and the school’s enrollment.”

“We continue to affirm this recommendation,” she said.

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the school has had enough time.

“It is time for Hawkins Mill to close because for years, it has failed to educate our students. Some I know have left the elementary school not knowing how to read,” she said in a statement. “More money will not turn around this failing school, and we can’t allow bad schools to stay open when it costs our kids their education.”

But the decision to close has to come from the school board, since the state only has the power to recommend that action. Some school board members already have indicated they would rather move Hawkins Mill to the iZone than close it. Hopson wants to stay the course under his critical focus plan.

Either way, school board chairwoman Shante Avant said last week it would be wrong for the district to go back on its “promise” to schools like Hawkins Mill.

“I think it’s our responsibility as a board,” she said, “if that’s what we said that’s the track we’re going on, that we continue to provide those kinds of resources.”

The district will hold a community meeting at Hawkins Mill at 6 p.m. on March 8 to review the state’s recommendation.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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