Faltering charter to hand school back to district

A charter network brought in to turn around a failing elementary school is handing the school back to the district.

The district brought in the SOAR charter school network to turn around Oakland Elementary school three years ago, as the traditional school was phasing out. Three years later, SOAR officials realized that students’ continued low performance meant a renewal of their contract, up for review this fall, was unlikely. Instead, the network’s board decided to voluntarily pull out of the school at the end of this year and grant control back to the district.

“Knowing that the data was not strong, we were not confident we would get a renewal,” said Marc Waxman, co-executive director at SOAR. “Instead of waiting for that process to occur, we though it much better to work proactively with the district so that the Oakland campus can move forward positively next year.”

The school posted low TCAP scores and the lowest growth in the district last year, according to the district’s SPF data. The school’s math scores stalled, with the district average outpacing SOAR at Oakland’s growth by three times. SOAR at Oakland’s writing growth was less than half the district’s overall. The growth on reading was marginally better, at just over half the district’s pace.

“They serve some of our lowest income kids,” said Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools. “It’s imperative that those students make progress and they are not making that progress.”

The district brought in SOAR as part of the larger far northeast Denver turnaround effort, a project that has lead to mixed results with some success at the high school level. Far northeast elementary schools, however, are still plagued with low performance, with over 30 percent of elementary capacity in schools in the two lowest tiers of the district’s rankings.

At Oakland, said Waxman, the charter network ran into trouble as it implemented its turnaround plan.

“The turnaround at Oakland with SOAR was an ambitious practice,” said Waxman. “We did several things that would not be considered best practice for opening a charter school.”

Most new schools open slowly, one grade at a time and add new programs judiciously. SOAR doubled in size its second year in part by absorbing fourth and fifth graders already attending school on the Oakland campus. In addition, the school took over already existing autism and early childhood learning programs.

“We had some new programs that we had never done before that we needed to sort through,” said Waxman.

SOAR operates another school in the district, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch, which has higher performance but has also struggled with student growth. SOAR at Green Valley Ranch received the district’s lowest ranking this year.

“Opening the second school while the first school was growing did stretch us thin,” said Waxman. He hopes being able to devote more energy to a single school will benefit SOAR at Green Valley Ranch.

With SOAR at Oakland’s closure, district staff are recommending opening a district-run school at the Oakland campus. The district will take over management of the school, under the Denver Summit Schools Network, which manages other turnaround schools in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

The district plans to bring on Lisa Mahannah as the new Oakland principal. She is currently the principal at Force Elementary School, a high-performing district school in southwest Denver.

When SOAR opened at Oakland, according to Waxman, the district had few options for turnaround. Now, however, he said the district is well-equipped for turnaround, having had success in other schools. For one thing, the district has established a support program, the Denver Summit Schools Network, that manages many of the far northeast turnaround schools, including the Montbello campus. The network will also manage the new district-run school that will open in SOAR’s stead.

“What the district and [the Denver Summit Schools Network] can bring to the table is far more than what we can bring to the table,” said Waxman.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede