November 2011 Archives

Jane Roberts has the story of the 23-member unified Shelby County Board of Education overwhelming support Tuesday of recommendations by both superintendents to deny 17 charter school applications based on financial hardship.

Citing a new state law, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash and his staff laid out the "unsustainable" short-term and long-term financial burdens that would be created if the board approved the 12 charter schools that staff said provided strong enough amended applications (two more had inferior amended applications). Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken applied the same analysis to the two charter schools that submitted strong enough amended applications (one other was not strong enough).

Of the 14 rejected, nine were from the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium led by Willie Herenton, the longtime former Memphis mayor and former MCS superintendent. He plans to appeal.

Board members were swayed by a presentation that showed the potentially crippling effects on MCS in particular if 14 new charters were allowed to operate next school year. The superintendents told the board that the charter application deadline is such that it had to act before close of business today or the charters with strong enough applications would have automatically been approved.

A great deal of the deliberations were spent by some MCS board representatives in particular chastising Cash's staff for not providing more or better numbers, despite a detailed presentation from chief financial officer Pam Anstey. Sara Lewis and Stephanie Gatewood said they needed color printouts with more visual presentation of numbers. When Tomeka Hart complained about not having more data by hitting Anstey with a fusillade of detailed requests, the CFO had responses ready within five minutes.

The short-term numbers would be grim enough, both superintendents said. Cash said approving 12 more charter schools would create a cost to MCS of an additional $26 million, meaning 400 positions would have to be eliminated. Aitken said costs for SCS would climb from $280,000 now to about $3.5 million -- the equivalent of roughly 50 positions.

Anstey pointed out that the long-term implications were even more stark -- approving charter schools at the rate of about 15 new ones per year combined with growth of existing charter schools would mean costs of $184,510,410 by 2016-17.

Herenton said he will appeal to the state. MCS and SCS are hoping the state will accept their claims of financial hardship, and board vice-chairman Jeffrey Warren suggested that the uncertainty about funding related to MCS merging with the county by 2013 could be another argument.

One reason for the vast increase in the charter school applications -- new state laws passed that severely loosened the restrictions on which students could be eligible to attend charter schools (essentially, every student is now eligible). MCS Dep. Supt. Irving Hamer had this to say: "This is an unfunded mandate that requires us to use base dollars and compromises the base infrastructure, compromises the base capacity to use resources for the operation of the main school system."

The two board members most sympathetic to charter schools were MCS representative Kenneth Whalum Jr. and new unified member Vanecia Kimbrow. Whalum said the arguments were another example of adults putting their own interests and that of the district's above students, and Kimbrow, who has been involved with charter schools, testified to the power of charter schools to give hope to children and their parents.

However, staff said that those existing charters Kimbrow extolled also would feel adverse consequences just like traditional schools if the district as a whole began cutting deeper into "the marrow" of infrastructure, as Cash put it.

The board now has five days to present evidence to the state of the financial hardship. Cash said his staff will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday and over the weekend getting it ready.
Another Tuesday, another bounty of information about schools and education in your morning newspaper. The biggest news comes from Jane Roberts explaining the state's formal request for a waiver from the controversial No Child Left Behind federal law. Essentially, Tennessee is asking for more straightforward gauges of measuring whether a school or schools are making adequate progress in raising proficiency levels in students for math and reading.

Tennessee is asking for measures that would call for raising proficiency levels three to five percent each year, as well as heightened attention to the achievement gap between students of different demographic backgrounds. Additional resources would be aimed at schools where it is demonstrated the most help is needed. Dept. of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman explains it all in this op-ed piece. An accompanying graphic (PDF here) shows how differently the schools' performances would look using the revised measurements. From the news article:
... schools would be divided into three categories based on their test scores and graduation rates but in some nontraditional areas as well, including how much progress students are making. That puts schools like Booker T. Washington High, long on the state's priority list, at the top of pack, joining the ranks with Robert R. Church Elementary and a handful of high-ranking charter schools in the city.

Conversely, Memphis schools such as White Station High and Peabody and Idlewild elementary schools would rank low due to the large size of their achievement gaps between students. "You can't ride the coattails of high-achieving students," Cash said. "You won't be a great school until all children in all subgroups are achieving at high levels."
Also from Jane Roberts -- an Memphis City Schools ceremony honoring some of the district's top teachers at the first My Favorite Educator Golden Apple Awards.
One hundred and five teachers made the finalist cut from 1,200 nominations; 21 received plaques with golden apples and $100 checks, complements of the Memphis Education Association, while fans on two levels of the performance hall clapped and cheered.

Meah King from East High took the top honors for high school English teachers and smiled and shook hands most of the way back to her seat. "Teaching is not a profession, it's a ministry," she said. "My work is not in vain."
In Bartlett, residents gathered to talk about creating municipal schools for the fast-growing suburb. Mayor Keith McDonald captured the energy and enthusiasm for moving in that direction and away from what would be a huge 150,000-student unified county school district saying that, "In politics you have to be careful on which sword you are willing to die on. I'm willing to die on this one." But Clay Bailey reports there was little in the way of new clarifying information.
In some instances, there were details about the proposed city school system, but most specifics were tempered by caveats of the unknown, from the increase in taxes to the cost of acquiring the school buildings in Bartlett. In addition to the lack of firm figures on cost, there also is the question of whether the idea can survive expected legal challenges if outlying Shelby County cities decide to separate from the combined school system.

All six Shelby County suburbs have hired Southern Educational Strategies, a consulting firm, to study the feasibility of starting their own municipal systems. The reports are expected in mid-January. Bartlett city officials really don't have any new figures on the cost of the idea. In March, the suburb's research showed 11 public schools within Bartlett borders. Of those, six are elementary schools, four are middle schools, along with Bartlett High.
One of the biggest questions, one that may require a judge's interpretation of laws and precedent, involves exisiting school facilities.
But a major question facing a future municipal system from a facilities and funding standpoint is what happens to those county school buildings in Bartlett that will fall under a unified school system. According to a study done for Bartlett in February, the net book value of those 11 school buildings, plus the equipment and land, is about $65 million.

While there is resistance to proposals that the county give school buildings to suburban municipal school districts, leaders such as McDonald point out that Memphis has taken over schools in annexations without having to pay for them under the reasoning that the newly annexed residents paid county taxes before annexation to cover those costs.

How you define "college ready" depends on the number

 
At Thursday's schools merger transition commission meeting, which was devoted mostly to a presentation by suburban Shelby County Schools, one of the issues that got ping-ponged around involved the appropriate way to gauge "college readiness" as measured by ACT scores. Technically, students must meet or exceed benchmark "college ready" scores in all four tested subject areas -- score just one point below that in, say, science and it doesn't matter if you far exceeded the benchmark in three other subject areas.

It came up in part because Stand For Children's presentation included the depressing news that while Memphis City Schools only had 5 percent of students meet that "college ready" standard on the ACT, Shelby County Schools only had 20 percent of students at that level. The presentation by SCS included a breakdown of ACT scores, with the emphasis not on the 20 percent who exceeded benchmarks in all areas but on the 62 percent who received composite scores of 19 or above.

Commissioner John Smarrelli, the Christian Brothers University president, engaged Aitken in the same conversation he had with MCS Supt. Kriner Cash the week before about the number of students ready to enroll and prosper at local universities. Aitken and Smarrelli seemed to agree that the composite score of 19 was a more fair indicator of college readiness, because that is the minimum number most local schools require and what the state requires for students to qualify for lottery scholarship money.

Smarrelli pointed out that 62 percent of SCS juniors comes out to 2,000 to 2,500 students. Interestingly, when MCS's Irving Hamer gave a brief presentation at the commission's initial meeting, he pointed out that though MCS's average ACT score was 16.5, a record number of MCS students scored 19 or above -- 2,000 in all, Hamer said. "That is incredibly interesting and optimistic," Hamer said.

MCS would also point out that though its system has approximately 105,000 students to SCS's 47,000, SCS actually has a much larger pool of students who are not considered economically disadvantaged (i.e., who do not qualify for free and reduced price lunches) -- about 29,600 compared to only 15,750 in MCS.

Both districts take pains to point out that all their students are required to take the ACT, while other states may allow non-college ready students to skip the test, thus skewing the average. Speaking of ACT scores, this chart gives a really cool look at the relationships between student growth, ACT scores and socio-economics at Tennessee high schools for the period spanning 2007-2009.
The Shelby County Commission education committee's discussion on Wednesday (story here) about how to wind up in September 2013 with a fully-elected 13-member school board covered much ground, but it glossed over two significant issues -- a loophole in commissioner Walter Bailey's plan that would create less representation for some districts and the commission's lack of coordination with the schools merger transition commission on optimal school board size.

Bailey laid out the following plan:
  • In August of 2012, an election be held for 13 districts, with seven of the winners immediately becoming part of the temporary 23-member unified school board. The other six defer the beginning of their terms until after merger of Memphis City Schools and suburban Shelby County Schools is completed in late summer of 2013.
  • When the nine MCS and seven SCS representatives fall post-merger, the six who deferred their terms join the seven who elected in 2012 to form a 13-member permanent school board.
  • Some number of each group would need to serve staggered terms, so that eventually, by 2016 or 2018, only half the board is being turned over every two years.
Nobody brought up this issue -- is there not a problem of under-representation for the six district seats asked to defer the beginning of their terms? In other words, is it not possible that someone in, say, Frayser would have one retiring MCS representative and one just-elected unified board representative while someone in, say, Whitehaven could have just the one MCS representative while its just-elected unified representative waits one year to join?

Afterward, Bailey and commissioner Steve Mulroy spoke at length about that very issue with attorney Lori Patterson, who works for the outside firm Baker Donelson that has represented the commission during the schools merger litigation process. Patterson had some districting maps that she used to illustrate how that problem of under- or over-representation could be alleviated, though Bailey told me afterward it is possible to live with that "proportionality" disparity for a short-term period if the federal judge and all parties to the consolidation settlement agree.

On the transition commission, it was commissioner Melvin Burgess, a financial administrator at MCS, who asked if perhaps the county commission should be communicating with the schools merger team on how many members should be on the school board. Burgess said that the Council for Great City Schools advocates for a nine-member board and has studies backing it up; Miami-Dade, for one example, has nine members despite a student population of 300,000, Burgess said.

When I asked transition commission members about it later Wednesday, they welcomed the idea of coordination but said it was not something they have looked at closely yet.

Merger team in talks with international firm Boston Consulting

 
Leaders of Shelby County's schools merger transition commission believe that one of the body's first major decisions may well be its most important -- bringing on board a consulting firm to help with organization, coordination and decision making during the process of creating a transition plan for consolidating the county's public schools. Today we had an exclusive story looking at the deliberations an ad hoc committee made in deciding to pursue an agreement with the international firm Boston Consulting Group.

Because of space, we had to cut some of the background on BCG, including details of the two-hour interview conducted with BCG at BRIDGES last week. Read the story for the basics, and see below for more about BCG. Financial details are not yet available, although committee members say that local philanthropists and foundations have made commitments to fund help from a consulting firm.

In last week's interview, BCG emphasized its comfort working in the "fishbowl environment" that is urban education, while stressing its experience guiding hundreds of "substantially complex" corporate mergers. BCG said its education database can draw on best practices from around the world, and has relationships with "subject matter" experts who could help.

J. Puckett, a senior partner and managing director based in Dallas, talked about a recent education conference where "Memphis was the center of discussion."      

"I walked away from that convinced that Memphis as a location offered great potential for for being the next place of change," Puckett said. "That's the reason we are in the room. We believe we can make a difference in places where the conditions are right."

Other firms submitted strong proposals, according to committee members, but Prescott said Wednesday none seemed as prepared as BCG to work with a commission that intends to be active, engaged and very public in creating a plan.

The commission today will hear a presentation from SCS Supt. John Aitken; last week it heard from MCS Supt. Kriner Cash.

There was some discussion of possibly bringing BCG in next week to meet with the commission, if a deal can be reached.

"It's all contingent upon approval of the full commission," Prescott said. "I think everybody is ready to get started."

That, said Johnson, would mean the commission's first "ad hoc committee is about to go out of business." To underscore the mountain of work ahead, Cates half-jokingly said it would just mean "one down, 521 to go."
The New York Times national education reporter, Sam Dillon, is the latest in a long line of education journalists with national reach to visit Memphis and Shelby County. We met him at the Oct. 10 organizational meeting of the 23-member unified Shelby County Board of Education, when it picked Billy Orgel as chairman and Dr. Jeff Warren as vice-chairman. Dillon's article, published Sunday, makes clear why this is an important national story, not least because, as he claims, it "is the largest school district consolidation in American history and poses huge logistical challenges." He then proceeds to lay out some of them:
Memphis teachers are unionized, Shelby County's are not; the county owns its yellow buses, the city relies on a contractor; and the two districts use different textbooks and different systems to evaluate teachers.

Toughest of all may be bridging the chasms of race and class. Median family income in Memphis is $32,000 a year, compared with the suburban average of $92,000; 85 percent of students in Memphis are black, compared with 38 percent in Shelby County.
Interestingly, he ends the story discussing the second-floor walkway at the Board of Education that connects the Memphis City Schools offices to Shelby County Schools offices:
A corridor linking the two wings of the building has, for years, had double-locked doors whose glass panels are covered with particle board. "This is our Berlin Wall," said Irving Hamer, Memphis's deputy superintendent.

Coincidentally, that's how I began this morning's story looking at ways the two districts already are combining efforts, on things like adopting textbooks, serving on transition commission committees and, likely very soon, modernizing data systems. Here's what I wrote:
At the Board of Education office complex off Hollywood, where Memphis City Schools and the Shelby County Schools have coexisted side by side for more than four decades, there is a second-floor walkway connecting the two districts.

Staffers are using it, says SCS Supt. John Aitken, for the first time in years if not decades. In the past, the path was completely blocked and used as a storage area, Aitken said.

As the process of merging MCS with SCS accelerates, the traffic along that inter-district avenue figures to increase.

The New York Times story ends with the claim that the hallway was still barred by those formidable double-locked doors. My conversation with Aitken about the walkway came on Oct. 20, and he gave every indication there would be more use of it, for practical reasons. He also said that one reason the walkway had been blocked in the past was over security protocols that called for specific access points at only a number of areas.

My conversation with Aitken came right before the schools merger transition commission, the school board and key staff from both systems heard from Chattanooga-Hamilton County leaders about their merger in the 90s. As I point out in today's story, one of the things emphasized in that meeting was how crucial it was for staff in the merging systems to regularly gather and create a sense of teamwork and togetherness.

Merger team website adds audio, video archive

 
We're in the process of updating documents and data on our landing page for education news, Schools In Transition, and we'll have links there as well. One definite link will be to the Shelby County website's portal for the schools merger transition commission.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell's staff has in a very short time period built a functional, useful home for the transition commission, and many members of the commission hope it eventually evolves into a go-to website for all information related to the merger of the county's public schools. Diane Brown, Jenna Stonechipher, Kim Hackney and Steve Shular have seamlessly added support of the commission to their county government duties, and county information technology chief Michael Pachis and his staff have added the necessary technology to the Shelby County Code Enforcement offices so there is archived audio of meetings there.

There is also video available. Last month's session with leaders involved in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County merger is posted on it, so if you missed it, you can view their take on consolidation's impact on their region (three of the panelists had opposed consolidation).
We have a veritable cornucopia of education-related news in today's print edition. It may not get the pageviews of those "Cute cat does crazy trick!" stories, but we hope readers find that articles about local education make supporting our products (subscribe here!) well worth the nominal daily cost. There are four separate items in just Thursday's print edition:

And as the political PR pros like to say, ICYMI (that is, In Case You Missed It):
  • We ran this story Monday on the big new Central Office Building that Shelby County Schools is building and is near completion.
  • Here is the full story on a study looking at teacher effectiveness programs by Jane Roberts. For the full state report, click this link here.

As always, check out our landing page for education news at bit.ly/SchoolsInTransition .

Report: University of Memphis teacher training lagging

 
We've posted a preview of an important story from Jane Roberts that gets at the root of teacher effectiveness -- how and where teachers are trained. A new state report contains disappointing information about the University of Memphis's education program, which has long been a huge supplier of educators not only at Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools but public schools and private schools throughout the region.

She will have a more comprehensive report in the print edition tomorrow. Here's a snippet:
Recent education graduates from the University of Memphis compare poorly against teacher veterans in overall elementary student test scores and show significant weakness in reading test scores.
The UofM was not the only laggard. According to the report:
Nine teacher training programs, including Tennessee State University, University of Tennessee-Martin, Middle Tennessee State and the Memphis Teacher Residency were cited for failing to compete with the quality of new teachers from other programs.

Teach for America Memphis, Teach for America Nashville and Lipscomb University showed some of the strongest results.
I just filed the following item for our news briefs tomorrow, on Shelby County Schools wrapping up the process to receive full district accreditation from AdvancED. It's something the suburban district has been striving for, and it had to have all of its schools aligned to meet the high standards required by AdvancED.

The question, of course, is what happens if and when SCS receives accreditation. Technically, it is the Shelby County Board of Education applying for accreditation, but the actual district that has taken all the steps and included all of its schools is in fact the suburban-only SCS. When SCS had its final work session with an all-suburban board, in September, SCS chairman David Pickler suggested that keeping accreditation might require proving all of the schools currently run by the Memphis City Schools administration are following the accreditation guidelines and meeting the AdvancED standards.

Shelby County Schools quest to receive coveted school district accreditation reaches its final stage today when officials from the internationally recognized group AdvanceED meet with administration and members of the unified Shelby County Board of Education.

AdvanceED officials have been meeting at schools and in offices around the suburban district the last two days, and at 1 p.m. Wednesday will present their report. The meeting will be held in the board auditorium on the SCS side of the Board of Education facilities at 160 South Hollywood Street.

SCS has been pursuing accreditation since before Supt. John Aitken took over in 2009, and in September filed a 125-page report on the district.

To receive accreditation as a district, SCS must prove it meets AdvanceED's benchmarks in seven key areas: Vision and purpose; governance and leadership; teaching and learning; documenting and using results; resources and support systems; stakeholder communications and relationships; and, commitment to continuous improvement.

SCS remains suburban-only this school year and next. It must merge with Memphis City Schools in time for the 2013-14 school year.

  • About memphisnewsblog.com

As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at www.MemphisNewsBlog.com, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at zmcmillin@commercialappeal.com or 529-2564.

  • Zack McMillin on Twitter