Reformers take over failing Memphis schools

Tennessee is putting schools with very low test scores and graduation rates into a state-run district, reports the New York Times.  Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and poor, is the “crucible of change,” aka “a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers’ unions and some parent groups.”

Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.

There are signs of progress, but also complaints about “racial sensitivity.” That is, fewer than half the new district’s teachers are black, compared to 97 percent of students.

Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in in a very poor Memphis neighborhood, replacing all the teachers.  “More than a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America,” reports the Times.

Mid-year tests showed rising scores. But parents complain of strict discipline.

 “They don’t understand black folk,” said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. “They don’t understand our values or events in our history.”

But Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother on an advisory council to the achievement district, said students are “engaged and learning.”  Children will get used to higher expectations, she said.

New achievement district school staffers are wooing parents in their boundary zones (they must take all who apply) with door-to-door visits and open houses.

 Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Ms. Oliver’s autistic son, “that just meant so much to me,” Ms. Oliver said.

But locals complain experienced teachers will be displaced.  “A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs,” said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.

Do state takeovers work? The Atlantic looks at New Jersey’s plan to take over Camden schools and potential takeovers in Ohio and Maryland.

The track record for state takeovers is shaky “probably because they don’t tend to change a whole lot,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank in Washington, D.C. “The union contract stays in place, the bureaucracy stays in place. All that’s gone is the school board.”

That’s why districts are turning to nonprofit charter management companies  to take over chronically low-performing schools.

Judge rules for ‘parent trigger’ in Adelanto

The parent trigger movement has won a victory in the California desert. The Desert Trails Parents Union can move forward with plans to “transform” a low-performing elementary school, ruled Superior Court Judge Steven Malone. the Adelanto school board  “lacked authority to reject 97 signatures” on the parents petition, the judge ruled. Here’s the judge’s opinion.

Parents say they want to work with the district to create a “partnership school,”  rather than bringing in a charter school, though the board’s intransigence may make that impossible. With the new school year starting so soon, the “full transformation” will be delayed until 2013, said Gabe Rose, deputy direction of Parent Revolution.

ACLU: Students denied ‘right to learn to read’

Michigan and a small Detroit-area district are violating students’ “right to learn to read,”, charges an ACLU lawsuit. A 1993 state law says schools must provide “special assistance” to bring students to grade level if they’re not proficient in reading on fourth-grade and seventh-grade tests.In Highland Park, a three-school district,   three-quarters of students read below grade level — often many years below — but haven’t received extra help, the ACLU charged.

One student in the Highland Park district, a 14-year-old boy named Quentin, just finished seventh grade. Quentin, whose mother asked that his last name be withheld, reads at a first-grade level, according to an expert hired by the ACLU.

When asked to compose a letter to Snyder to describe his school, Quentin misspelled his own name, writing, “My name is Quemtin .?.?. and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

The district, which is running an $11 million deficit, was taken over by the state earlier this year. In June, “officials announced plans to turn the district’s three schools, with fewer than 1,000 students, over to a charter operator, starting this fall,” reports the Detroit News. That’s a very rapid turnaround.

The Highland Park district is among the lowest performing in the state: In 2011, 10 percent of third-graders in the district were proficient in math, and 22 percent were proficient in reading.


Parents ‘pull trigger’ on failing school

In a low-income, low-performing, all-minority school district in southern California, Compton Unified parents are going to “pull the trigger” today on McKinley Elementary School, reports Parent Revolution. More than 60 percent of parents have signed a petition to use the new parent trigger law to force change. Under the law, parents can demand a new principal or a new staff or new management by a neighboring charter school with higher performance; they also can demand that the school be closed.

The petitioning parents have chosen a non-profit charter group called Celerity to take over McKinley, starting this summer.  Celerity runs three schools in the Los Angeles area that outscore nearby schools; a fourth school opened this fall. Compared to schools with similar demographics — mostly low-income, Hispanic and black students — Celerity schools do very well.

Less than half of Compton Unified students graduate from high school, Parent Revolution points out. Only three percent of graduates are eligible for California’s state universities.

A recent two-year performance audit highlighted numerous reasons why the district has such poor results, stating, amongst other things, “…the focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs.” And within Compton, McKinley is one of the worst schools – it is ranked in the bottom 10% of elementary schools statewide, even when compared only to schools serving similar student populations.

This will be the first use of the parental trigger law in California. It will be interesting to see if Celerity, which has started its own schools from scratch, can improve an existing school with a history of low performance.

The LA Weekly has a story on the decision by McKinley parents to force change at the school.

Here’s the New York Times story.

On National Journal, the Education Experts are debating school turnarounds.