Who Is In Charge

Johnston exhorts Harvard grads on “the right to know”

Sen. Mike Johnston, sounding more like a preacher than a politician, on Wednesday exhorted graduates of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education “to finish the work that has been started” to ensure that every child achieves the American promise “that all are created equal.”

Johnston, a 2000 graduate of the school, made no direct references to the students and alumni who had protested his selection as commencement speaker because they feel he “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers, a vision that we believe ultimately harms students and communities.”

Instead, the Denver Democrat repeatedly asserted what he called “the fundamental right to know … how we’re doing” in education.

Without using education jargon like “data,” “accountability” or “evaluation” Johnston argued that students and parents should have the “fundamental right” to know early and often … how they compare to kids around the corner and around the world.”

Johnston continued, “We have to defend fundamentally the right to know … how we’re doing.”

Fear of change is “not a reason to stop. Take the information and make decisions about it.”

In another oblique reference to criticism, Johnston noted, “What we have to do is realize that we share the same goal and that we only differ on how to reach it.” Rather than debate among each other, he said educators need to face “the real enemies of injustice and inequality that continue to run rampant,” he said, adding, “Reach out first to those who disagree with you.”

And those who objected to Johnston’s presence at the ceremony, if they attended, were quiet and respectful. No visible protests were held around the commencement and Johnston received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Johnston wove the 30-minute speech around the stories of three young people he and his wife know – Raquel, a student from a poor family who made it to Stanford; Flavio, an undocumented student who joined the Army, and Jerome, a homeless youth who ultimately went to prison.

“The right to know, the power to decide and the will to love” are the message those three “would share back to you,” he said.

“You must lead us out of a world of compliance and into a world of creation,” he told the 644 graduates. “In this world clear standards and clear expectations are not constraints, they’re invitations.”

Johnston, a state senator since 2009, has been a leading figure in legislation on teacher evaluation, early literacy and resident tuition eligibility for undocumented students. He also authored a massive 2013 rewrite of state school finance law that remains on the shelf because voters rejected the tax increase needed to pay for it.

He’s a familiar figure on the education reform circuit, traveling frequently to give speeches and attend conferences.

Additional reporting provided by Michela Dimond.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.