Movers & shakers

The state-run Achievement Schools has a new academic leader. Here’s her vision for amplifying the district’s top teachers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD's chief of academics in August. She's now a finalist to lead schools in a Massachusetts district.

As the newly named chief academic officer for Tennessee’s turnaround district, Verna Ruffin said one of her first priorities will be investing in their top tier teachers.

“We know that we have critical work to do,” Ruffin said. “And we also know that investing in our classrooms is a sure way to move the needle on student achievement. We have teachers who are doing amazing work. We need to amplify them.”

Ruffin joins the state’s Achievement School District, known as the ASD, during a chaotic season of change. One month after she was hired as part of a major leadership team overhaul, the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, announced she was stepping down. Ruffin will work with the interim superintendent, Kathleen Airhart, until Anderson’s replacement is hired.

When the state-run district launched in 2011, it was with the aspiration to turn around schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state through new charter management. But results have lagged, and school leaders say turnaround work has been harder than expected in Memphis, where many of their students live in generational poverty and come to school behind grade level.

Ruffin’s role with the five-year-old district is a new one. She will oversee the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by the former executive director, Tim Ware. But her job description also includes raising the academic bar across all 32 ASD schools and promoting more collaboration among them.

The most recent round of state test scores show the district has work ahead to reach its visionaries’ original goal. The state’s growth scores, announced last week, rank the Achievement district as a level 1, the lowest possible score. And within the direct-run Achievement Schools, which Ruffin directly oversees, three of five schools scored a level 1.

Ruffin got her start in education more than 30 years ago as a band director in Louisiana before moving into school leadership roles. She was an assistant superintendent in Tulsa, Okla., where she specialized in working with low-performing schools, before becoming superintendent at Jackson-Madison County Schools in 2013. She will earn $115,000 a year with the Achievement Schools.

We sat down with Ruffin to hear about her game plan for improving the Achievement district’s academics in her new role. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Tennessee’s growth formula, known as TVAAS, ranked the ASD as a level 1 overall for academic growth. What is your initial read of those scores, and how do you plan to raise the bar?

I’m very proud of the schools that earned a rating of 5 and for their contributions for growing students beyond a typical year’s growth. Of the five schools in the direct-run Achievement Schools, we had one at a level 5 and one at a level 3.

But the other direct-run schools and a number of schools within the whole network received a level 1. There is an urgency to focus on instruction and strategies to help children become successful. I’m thinking through — what does this mean for individual schools?

A focus for me will be to look at staff members and their individual TVAAS scores. We have level 5 teachers, and we can get them to collaborate more and bring their strengths to their own campuses, but also to the ASD as a network. The TVAAS conversation is still challenging to understand. How do you measure growth? How can you determine that when the assessment has changed?  It can be hard to get people to subscribe to something you can’t explain, and we’re having ongoing conversations about what the data can tell us moving forward.

Talk to me more about your vision for investing in individual teachers to raise academic performance.

When I was superintendent in Jackson-Madison, we added instructional times in the afternoons at one of our lower performing schools. We sought level 4 and 5 teachers across the district and asked them: “Would you come teach at this school in the afternoons during their after-school program?” We asked the teachers to look at the data of students within that school and come up with a plan for what they were going to teach the children. We opened up an application process, and teachers came. That year, this school jumped from a level 1 to a level 5 in growth. We attribute that to the emphasis on instruction and the quality staff that was willing to work with the children in an after-school, purposeful, instructional model.

We think that this model, effectively implemented, is how you’re going to change learning for children. We do not have enough level 4 or 5 teachers across the district to just say, we’re going to take a level 5 teacher from this school and put them over in this school because then we’re going to create a deficit model. So, it’s about how to utilize the talent of your current staff and spread it out so they can influence children in another school in an acceptable way to teachers. This is something I would absolutely consider doing within the ASD.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the ASD as a whole?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that the ASD has existed with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and people are accustomed to that autonomy. And they may not quite embrace the fact that even if we have autonomy, we have a shared goal. And we have to meet that goal.

So, the autonomy of the ASD isn’t going away, but we have to better describe and define what an ASD education is. Our goal is the same for every school in the ASD, to raise student achievement. We have a moral responsibility working with the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee to not stay at the bottom 5 percent. And so, having said that, there are some things that we’ve got to do that are non-negotiable that will get us out of the bottom 5 percent of schools. We have to be better. We have to figure out what’s going to make the ASD stand out, and how we work together as a very diverse group of schools.

Part of your role is to foster more collaboration between the direct-run Achievement Schools and the other charter-run schools within the ASD. What is your vision for building cross-district collaboration?

First, is taking the time to make connections. We are doing this work together, and the only way we can do that is to know one another. It’s a very small, but a big step. I am planning on meeting with the other chief academic officers in the ASD to work in step with them on a vision for the future.

We’re also creating a new academic team, which we are still in the process of hiring for. This team will include content specialists in literacy and math that will work across the district. These specialists can help us zero in across the district on what effective instruction is.

Our focus — across all ASD schools — on kindergarten through third-grade literacy is also going to be very strong this year. I’m asking questions like, “What does a phonics lesson look like across the ASD? How can we learn from one another on how to better teach phonics?”

We’re no longer working in silos, but there’s going to be collaboration on what classroom instruction looks like. And then we’re going to better monitor that instruction and hold ourselves accountable to making the gains we have to make.

farewell

Memphis principal retires after 17 years lifting up school with long odds

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg with former student Maria Pena (third from left) and family members.

After 17 years at Jackson Elementary School and 30 years at Memphis schools, the principal who led her once-struggling school to national recognition is retiring.

Yolanda Heidelberg, who worked at Gardenview and Kingsbury elementary schools before taking over at Jackson Elementary, credits her love of teaching to being a third generation educator on both sides of her family.

“During family gatherings, I heard conversations as a child centered around the dinner table regarding how to best help children,” she said in a letter to Jackson Elementary teachers, fellow principals, and Shelby County Schools leadership announcing her retirement. “So then, I was innately destined to do this work.”

During Heidelberg’s time at the school, students have sustained the state’s highest rating for academic growth since 2005 and scored higher than the district average on state tests, even with the tumultuous rollout of the new standardized test, TNReady.

That’s noteworthy because three out of four students at Jackson Elementary live in poverty, and for nearly half of students, English is not their native language. That’s much higher than the rest of district, in which about 60 percent of students live in poverty and 9 percent of students are English learners. The Memphis district has long struggled to catch those students up to their peers in academics.

So in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education gave the school its highest honor for closing the gap between white students and students of color and between students from poor and affluent families.


Read more about Jackson Elementary School’s success in our 2016 story when it was nationally recognized


Heidelberg said a key to her success was working collaboratively with teachers and parents, addressing any hurdles that might get in the way of their involvement at school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Yolanda Heidelberg’s favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.

When she couldn’t get translation services from the school district a decade ago for parent announcements and other materials, Heidelberg improvised and used the Memphis Police Department’s resources to get it done. It is also commonplace to see parent volunteers in the school and at meetings.

Her staff also point to her coaching and leadership as a guiding force for how teachers collaborate and brainstorm to best meet the needs of students. For example, English as a Second Language teachers are often seen in regular classroom meetings and help their students in their mainstream classes.

Jackson Elementary is one of six schools that are in need of a new principal in Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Tuesday. Those other schools are Woodstock Middle, Lucy Elementary, Vollentine Elementary, Cordova Middle, and Sherwood Elementary.

You can read Heidelberg’s farewell letter below:

Rahm

Emanuel touts Chicago grads’ successes in defense of CPS

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Rahm Emanuel speaking at Marine Leadership Academy's class of 2018 graduation

In three commencement speeches, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted post-high school success, underscoring a prime education goal that he’s prioritized for more than a year.

“99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces,” he said Friday at the graduation ceremony for Marine Leadership Academy, a public high school affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps in Logan Square.

Four days earlier, he highlighted achievement at the graduation ceremony of Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep based in Roseland: “I want the rest of Chicago to hear me loud and clear: 98 percent graduation, 90 percent college bound.”  Emanuel said. Three days before at commencement at Baker College Prep based in South Chicago, he celebrated a class that was 100 percent college-bound.

The mayor repeatedly highlighted postsecondary plans, echoing goals of the initiative he announced in April 2017– that starting with the class of 2020, high school seniors must have a letter of acceptance from a four-year college, a community college, the military, or a guaranteed entry into a trade in order to graduate. He said that this requirement “is an expectation we have for every child because that is the expectation the economy of the 21st century has for them.”

While CPS educators have agreed that preparing students beyond high school is important, many of them have also worried that the graduation requirement would rush schools to get students accepted into college without preparing them to actually succeed there.

As Emanuel travelled across the city to fete graduates, he also appeared to focus on their college plans as a weapon in his war of words with President Donald Trump over Chicago education. Just before Rahm announced the graduation requirement last year, the president criticized the city’s academic numbers as “very rough,” prompting the mayor to point to a Stanford study showing that Chicago students have among the highest improvement rates in the nation.

On Friday, Emanuel said, “To Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.”

Read on for his full speech at Marine Leadership Academy’s graduation:

“I

want to congratulate this great class of 2018. I want to congratulate your teachers, your principals, all the families, all the families of the Bulldogs that are here. I want to say, just last week, I sat where your parents are sitting as my little baby graduated. And well, I’m sorry, you are to certain people still their baby. That’s the way this works.

Now this is your day, this is your accomplishment. But there are a lot of people in this room who prodded you, who pushed you, who poked you. So I want you to stand up, turn around and give your parents and your teachers an applause for what they did to help you get to this day.

Now I asked you to do that for a reason. I asked you to do that because I want the rest of the city of Chicago, I want the state of Illinois, and I want the United States of America to see what I see in this room. 99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces. 100 percent.

$5.3 million in scholarships. That comes out to about $53,000 a student. So, to Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.

You stop running down the kids of the city of Chicago. The Bulldogs stand strong. They’re going to college, they’re going into the armed forces. When you use your cynicism to run down our kids, they got one thing to say to you, they’ll look you right in the eyes, like that valedictorian just said, and they’re going to strut to success. Don’t you ever doubt the kids in the city of Chicago.

And I can’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now I say that because unlike any other – and your principal knows this – unlike any other school (this is my third commencement this year, every year I do three), when I was a congressman (those were the days when you could get an earmark), I worked with a congressman from downstate Illinois by the name of Ray LaHood, and we got you the first $500,000 to $600,000 so you could establish the Marine Math and Science Academy. And then as mayor, I helped you get to your new building out of [shared quarters at] Phoenix [Military Academy], so you could have your separate building and expand to seventh and eighth grade. So I have a particular joy in this day, and I’m glad that you allowed me to share it with you and I want to thank you for that.

I also want to note to each and every one of you, every time you’ve confronted a challenge, you’ve met it head on. Every time you’ve faced an obstacle, you overcame it. Every time you’ve faced adversity, you’ve triumphed. And I want to talk about adversity for one second. Because while today is a milestone, and a sense of accomplishment, and it is that, you will learn more about yourself and what you’re made of in how you handle adversity, not success, how you handle failing, not triumph.

In my own life, and there’s no adult in this room that hasn’t failed. There’s no adult that hasn’t actually stumbled. One, you’re going to learn something about yourself, second, you’re going to learn who your friends are, who stands by you when you’re down. It’s easy to be by you when you’re up. That’s what you’re going to learn.

Right at this point, when I was your age, I was working to make money to go to college. I was working on a meat cutter. And I didn’t get told that on the meat-cutting blade there was a metal glove. Sliced my finger real bad, wrapped it up real tight, didn’t do anything for it for about 48 hours. They realized then that I was in a serious problem, rushed me to the hospital. I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, 105.4 [degrees temperature]. They put me in ice packs for 72 hours. And for those 72 hours, they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They also thought they should take my arm off just to see if they could save me.

In the seven weeks I was there, three of my roommates died and were wheeled out in the middle of the morning. And I was not a good student, and I said to myself – it’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing and the sun came through – but in those seven weeks that I stayed in my bed, I said if I ever get another chance, I’m going to make something of my life. I’m going to do something, I’ll go out.

And in the moment where I almost lost my life, I realized why life is worth living. And you will face your own moment, it won’t be that grave, where you stumble, you fall. You wobble, and that’s where you’re going to learn what it means to be a Bulldog. That’s where you’re going to learn who you are, and what you’re made of.

In the same way [that I learned] physically, [I also learned] professionally. So I get out of college, and I decide, I’m going to work for a president of the United States I believe in. Eight years later out of college, I’m in the White House. Political advisor to President Clinton. I think I’m in hog heaven. And I convinced my then-girlfriend, now my wife, to leave her job and join me in Washington for this great experiment – working for the president of the United States, everything that I wanted to do in life. In my career, eight years out of college here I am. The son and the grandson of an immigrant, working in the White House, working for a great president, for somebody I believed in.

And I know you find it hard to believe, but I mouthed off a little too often, to the First Lady – not a good idea, don’t do that. The day my wife Amy arrives, leaves her job here in Chicago to join me, because we’re in the White House, I lose my job. We have a home, and no employment. And the dream we were going to be part of, this journey with President Clinton, I was given my walking paper six months into it. I saw everything that I’ve worked for right before my eyes, just like I was in that hospital bed.

I don’t know where I got the gumption – I walked into the chief of staff’s office and I said, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Now, let me say this, as chief of staff to President Obama, if somebody said that to me, I would have said something else to them. I don’t know where I got it, I said, ‘I’m not leaving until the president of the United States says I’m leaving.’

So, two days later they said OK here’s your new job. And they demoted me, put me down, I joked I got a closet of an office from a big office with a play-school phone that didn’t even dial out. A year later, I worked my way back up to being senior adviser to the president of the United States for policy and politics, and replacing George Stephanopoulos as his senior adviser. I saw my entire career pass before my eyes, but I dug down deep, and realized in that moment of failure, I’m going to give myself a second chance, and make something of this second chance. And it was in that moment of seeing my career pass, it was in that moment of seeing my life pass, that I realized why it was worth doing what I needed to do. It is my one point to you on this great day of celebration.

You should celebrate, and have joy. Know that your moments of learning and accomplishment will come as much not only from success, but also from failure. And if you approach when you stumble with an attitude of ‘what I can learn from this,’ there are only great things ahead of you in your life. And I ask you as mayor, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants, I see the sons and daughters from all corners of this city. To you are given both opportunity and obligation. Opportunity to go on to college and make something of yourself. Your parents sacrificed and struggled for this moment for you. Honor it, give it justice that you are given an opportunity in the greatest city in the greatest country to make something of that. But you are also given, and required, an obligation. An obligation to give something back, something bigger than yourself. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘the service we pay to others is the rent we pay for being here on Earth.’

So while you are given this opportunity to make your own path, to make something of your life, you have an obligation to give something back to this city, to your neighborhood, and ultimately to your country. Your city and your country need your leadership. Your city and your country need your values. Your city and your country need your leadership, your values, and your courage. There’s never been a greater moment of opportunity for us, and also challenge. Go achieve what you’ve set out for yourself. Make your parents and yourself proud of what you’ve done. Look back and not regret your decision, but look back at them with joy, but I ask you, come home, come back to Chicago, and help us build this great city for another generation of Bulldogs.

Congratulations on this great day.