Student Voice

Students walk out of Memphis school demanding to know why principal and teacher were fired

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School protest administrators firing a teacher and principal.

About 30 students walked out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning, three months after school administrators fired the principal, and days after firing a beloved teacher.

Unease has filled the North Memphis charter school since the staffing changes. Teachers have quit, and students and parents do not believe they have received clear answers from administrators about the firings.

According to internal emails, principal Reginald Williams was fired because of the school’s poor performance on 2018 state tests — the same computerized test state lawmakers tried to block from negatively impacting teachers, students, and schools after major technical glitches.

Three student leaders gathered parent permission slips from classmates and walked out shortly after 9 a.m. with chants of “We want answers!” and “We want justice!” But teachers discouraged others from following, students said, while administrators lined the hallways and doors. Eventually, more students joined in protest as school leaders called an assembly to address student concerns. Student leaders say they still don’t have the answers they were looking for.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, Kiahna Noel, Semaj Buckhalter, and Markayla Crawford led a student protest at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning.

“When he was our principal, the school was OK. The school was good. And now we don’t have a principal and the school is going up in chaos,” said Cherelle Bledsoe, a senior who has attended the school since sixth grade. “Teachers are quitting because it’s unprofessional, because it’s not organized.”

“He was a good principal,” said Tamia Kerr, a senior who came back to Memphis Academy on Tuesday morning for the protest after transferring to another high school. “They made it sound like he up and left, but they fired him.”

Talya Garrett, one of the interim co-principals, declined to comment on the students’ concerns. Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, said he supported students expressing themselves — even in protest.

“In this world we live in and on a day like today where the vote is so precious, it’s important to hear the voices while still encouraging the continuation of the academic instruction,” he said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Johnson appointed two administrators, Garrett and Trent Watson, to share the responsibility of interim principal after firing Williams. The school serves about 420 students.

Parents and their supporters flooded a board meeting last month, where it was revealed Williams had not resigned, though Johnson said the two had come to a “mutual agreement.” Patricia Ange, an ACT prep teacher, supported Williams at the meeting and was fired Friday.

“She is the best teacher at MAHS, and I’m going to stand my ground for her,” said Kiahna Noel, a senior who organized the protest. “She brought our ACT scores up, she encourages people who want to drop out to continue. Half of these kids going to college because of Ms. Ange, and she going to get fired for speaking her mind? That’s not right.”

When Chalkbeat asked about claims of teachers locking doors and asked for details about teachers and students leaving for other schools, Johnson directed questions to the network’s lawyer, Florence Johnson. She said no teachers have quit and no students have withdrawn. She declined to respond to the students’ allegations.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Nicole Smith shares text messages from her daughter, which prompted her to come to the school.

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift held a small protest at the school earlier Tuesday morning and returned when leaders heard students had planned a walkout. Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director, has a granddaughter at the school, and said Memphis Lift wants Ange and Williams to come back to the school and for Johnson to be fired.

“We’re going to stand out here every day until every parent knows what’s going on,” she told one mother dropping off her student at the school.

Nicole Smith came to the school after her daughter texted her that students were being held in class, “so we won’t be heard because so many kids asking for answers.” If things don’t change soon, she plans to withdraw her daughter, a senior, from the school.

“If the top is good and strong, everybody else will be strong,” Smith said. “When you have a weak leader, everything else will fall. He [Williams] was a great leader because he knew how to be firm and a good educator at the same time.”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect that Stand for Children Indiana doesn’t take a position in regards to private school vouchers.