New layer

Tennessee cuts ribbon on its first charter school under State Board of Education

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Principal Jonas Cleaves cuts the ribbon at Bluff Hills High School's opening day ceremony. He is surrounded by students, faculty and leaders of Green Dot and the State Board of Education.

With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.