Charter guidance

With 45 charters and only three overseers, Shelby County Schools may consult with national group

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management for Shelby County Schools, confers in 2016 with the district's charter overseers including Stacey Thompson and Charisse Sales. Leon will continue to supervise the office now headed by Daphnè Robinson.

From a corner office of an administration building for Shelby County Schools, just three people oversee 45 charter schools that educate 12,200 Memphis students.

That’s more than 10 percent of the student population in Tennessee’s largest school district — and too many students being monitored by too few people, say district leaders.

On Tuesday, the school board will review a proposal to continue work with a national charter group to develop best practices in managing its increasing workload. A $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation would fund the work with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to establish clearer processes to approve, oversee and revoke charters — issues that this year prompted a reprimand from the State Board of Education. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat Tennessee is a nonprofit news organization that receives financial support from the Hyde Family Foundation. You can see the full list of our financial supporters here.)

The guidance from NACSA would signify the district’s commitment to working with its charter sector as it seeks to improve Memphis schools. It also would provide a valuable resource for a newly formed charter advisory committee, charged with setting the ground rules for issues such as charter accountability, funding, academic standards and facility needs.

The Chicago-based NACSA association helps local districts and other charter authorizers to open charter schools, as well as close failing ones.

Charter oversight was the topic of a school board subcommittee meeting last week on academic performance. Charisse Sales, the district’s director of charter schools and one of its three overseers, told members that NACSA recommends about 7.5 central office staff for every 10 charter schools. That would equate to about 34 staff for Shelby County Schools. But Sales, who has worked with Memphis charters since the state allowed them in 2003, said those positions wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the charter office. Even now, the charter office uses expertise of other district departments on charter matters.

“We have three people. But as you dig deeper into the accountability piece, (you’re) treading water,” Sales said.

NACSA vice president William Haft says charter authorizers’ methodology and staffing ratio vary based on a district’s needs.

“As you build those systems, there are choices to make. Do we have this information run through the charter office and build up capacity within the charter office … or do we do that through the department with the substantive expertise?” he told Chalkbeat.

Staffing also touches on funding issues, partly addressed through the district’s new charter authorizer fee, which channels to the district up to 4 percent of an operator’s state-allocated funds based on student enrollment. Officials say the fee, implemented this year, will help with administration costs.

The district’s work with NACSA would help inform where best to use that money, board member Chris Caldwell said. The State Board of Education and state-run Achievement School District previously had been the only charter authorizers in Tennessee able to levy a fee.

NACSA already is familiar with Memphis’ charter landscape. The association helped the ASD review and evaluate charter applications in its turnaround work, which is mostly in Memphis, and garnered praise from former superintendent Chris Barbic in a testimonial on the group’s website. The association also helped the State Board of Education create a framework in 2014 for authorizing and monitoring charter schools.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, who is a non-voting member of the charter advisory committee, said the collaboration with NACSA will be worth it.

“This is an opportunity to give us a road map in order to be successful,” Bibbs told Sales. “I think whatever their suggestions are will be an opportunity for us to advocate for an investment in your area.”

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya people. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.