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.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.