Who Is In Charge

How one Memphis school is caught in the crosshairs of state and local improvement efforts

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.

Five months after the Tennessee Department of Education threatened a state takeover of American Way Middle School if Shelby County Schools did not hand it over to a charter organization, the future of that chronically low-performing school remains in limbo.

The state has not yet decided whether it will take over American Way, according to a state spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools started the school year with American Way as its newest addition to the Innovation Zone. The district has high hopes that its proven school improvement model will turn things around for the Memphis middle school.

“We’re going about our business not thinking about the state,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said, standing in American Way’s entryway on Aug. 6, the first day of school. “All of our students deserve to have a great school and that’s our mindset here. … We have a strong record of success in the iZone.”

The fate of American Way speaks to a larger question in Tennessee: What is the best way to boost learning at schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty and students of color?

One track is the iZone, a local district-led program that has resulted in significant improvement on state tests. Another is the state-run Achievement Schools District, which relies heavily on charter organizations to improve schools. However, the schools it has taken over are doing no better than low-performing schools that were left out of both programs, researchers say.

In February, state education officials introduced a third option: turn American Way over to a nonprofit charter organization that would be overseen by the local district. If Shelby County Schools refused, the state-run district would take it over. But Shelby County Schools chose instead to add the school to its own iZone, something leaders had been considering for at least 10 months.

Making the decision more complicated: If the state decides to take over the school, the department of education would be rejecting a plan devised by Sharon Griffin, the leader who was later hired by the state to promote school improvement statewide.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin

When Griffin was chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, her team planned American Way’s transition into the iZone, which involves replacing the school leader, some teachers, and adding an extra hour to the school day along with resources like food pantries and clothes closets for low-income families.

The state tapped her in May to lead the Achievement School District and to oversee strategies to boost low-performing schools across the state.

Additionally, the state’s options for American Way were a result of a shift in strategy to be more collaborative with districts. The less heavy-handed approach was evident in the state’s improvement plans for 21 schools announced in February. American Way was the only school slated for takeover after years of taking over several at once with barely any recourse for the district.

Hopson said that under Griffin’s leadership, he expects the state would “certainly be open to giving us the time we need to turn the school around.”

“Parents are buying in, faculty is buying in,” he said. “So, we think given our track record with the iZone, we certainly deserve a shot to turn this school around.”

Hopson said as much in March, when he sent a letter asking the state to hold off on the takeover. He also said he was unaware of charter organizations that have been successful at improving middle schools.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
American Way Middle School

This is not the first time American Way Middle has been targeted for state takeover. The school has been eligible to enter the state-run Achievement School District since 2012, when it appeared on the state’s “priority list” of schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, statewide.

But after adamant pushback from hundreds of parents and students, an advisory group recommended American Way stay under Shelby County Schools control in 2014. The charter organization originally slated to take over the school, YES Prep, eventually backed out of another school at the eleventh hour.

Without any sort of intervention, American Way’s test scores have not been growing as fast as students who posted similar scores around the state. There was some improvement last year in English and science, but fewer than 5 percent of students tested at grade level in math.

The school did, however, show enough progress in 2015 to escape state takeover under a state law to shield schools that showed significant growth.

The state spokeswoman said there is “no specific timeline” on when a decision would be made about its involvement in American Way.

Editor’s note: Aug. 23, 2018: A previous version of this story said the state was reviewing the Shelby County Schools district plan for American Way Middle. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the state has not yet received that plan.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.