Future of Schools

Charters cry foul on impending SCS closures

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

At least three of four charter schools Shelby County Schools will shutter for low performance next spring say they will fight to keep their schools open, even though they don’t have a right to a formal appeal under state law.

Shelby County is the first and so far only school district in the state to use a new law that makes such closures possible.

The district sent letters earlier this month to Southern Avenue Middle, Omni Lower and Middle schools, and City University Boys Prep informing them they must close at the end of the current 2014-15 school year. District officials met with charter administrators last week to map out a transition plan.

This is the first time that any of the charters have been on the state’s priority list of lowest-performing schools. That’s one of several reasons that two of the three operators said they believe they should be allowed to keep operating.

One operator of a charter targeted for closure pointed out that the fate of her school may well rest on test results of fewer than 20 students.

Southern Avenue Middle founder Elise Evans said if the state reviews her school’s eighth grade math data, the school could be removed from the state list. Evans said 18 advanced students took a ninth-grade Algebra I end-of-course test instead of the easier grade-level assessment, which caused the school’s math scores to drop.

Evans said her school’s attorney requested a state review of the schools test data.

“We feel the state will be honest, just and fair,” she said.

Omni Schools founder Cary Booker said he will lobby lawmakers in January to consider the impact the law has on schools that have so little time to turn things around. Booker said charters operated by the state’s Achievement School District are allowed to be on the priority twice before being subject to closure.

“We acknowledge our (academic) challenges, we know our third grade data is not good,” Booker said last week.  “We disagree with the process, the way the law is being applied.  We want the same degree of equal treatment and accountability.”

City University Boys Prep did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.

Despite the charters’ efforts to fight the closure,  the district is moving forward with the transition. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the charter closures will affect 650 students.

“We’ll work with parents to reassign students to a Shelby County School to ensure a smooth transition,” Hopson said during a recent board meeting.

The law  in question passed the legislature in March. It went into effect in July and requires automatic shut-down of district-approved charters if the schools land on the state’s priority list after 2015.

There is more leniency for charter operators that fall under ASD control, and charters brought in to turn around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to before facing automatic closure.

The state produces the priority list every three years. It’s based on three years of student test scores. The next list will be published in 2017. Schools on the state’s priority list are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state. Shelby County has 59 schools on the priority list.

Schools on the list can fall under the control of the ASD, or  be placed in Shelby County’s own Innovation Zones. Both efforts involve planning and adopting turnaround models to improve the schools.

The charters facing automatic closure do not have a right to appeal to the State Board of Education, since they are designated priority schools, according to Shelby County Schools office of charter schools.

At the four closing charters, student improvement has been stagnant in some areas; fewer than 35 percent of the student body at all of the schools can demonstrate proficiency in math and reading.

For example, at  Southern Avenue Middle, which opened in 2010, only 24.7 percent of its students are reading on grade level, a 3.1 percent increase from the previous year.  The scores are even lower in math with 18.6 percent of students showing proficiency. Math scores increased by only 1 percentage point on state tests taken earlier this year.

At Omni Lower, just 13.6 percent of students are proficient in math and reading. Student performance decrease by 4.4 percent in reading and 1.1 percent in math this year. Omni Middle had the highest amount of growth of all of the closing charters, with 28.6 percent of students reading on grade level, a 9 percentage point increase, and 31.1 percent proficiency in math, a 17.6 percentage point improvement from the previous year.

The Omni schools were founded by Cary Booker and Marc Willis in the fall of 2010. Booker is the older brother of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Willis is the son of Memphis civil rights leader A.W. Willis.

City University Boy Prep, which opened in 2004, had the lowest math proficiency, 6.4 percent, which was a 12.2 percentage point decrease from the previous year.  Reading was only slightly better with 16.3 percent of students proficient, an increase of 3.6 percentage points.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.