Our Failing Schools 

Can anything be done?

East High School doesn't look like a school that's "failing." There are no metal detectors guarding the front doors, no broken windows, no graffiti tagging the lockers. If anything, East carries itself with the air of a private school. Classes are in session and the marble-walled halls are ghostly empty and shined to a high gloss. Seeing the high vaulted ceilings in the entry hall and the lush campus and sprawling sportsplex, one wouldn't ordinarily give a second thought to the quality of education within these walls.

But East, located between Poplar and Walnut Grove only a mile- and-a-half from the Memphis City Schools Board of Education building, is failing. It is one of 64 Memphis City Schools the Tennessee Department of Education put "On Notice" last month when it released its list of 98 low-performing schools statewide. Of Memphis schools, 23 of the low-performers were high schools, 14 were middle and junior highs, and 27 were elementary schools. If any one of these schools doesn't show enough improvement, they -- or, in a worst-case scenario, even the entire school district -- could risk being taken over by the state as early as 2004.

Last year the state named 48 elementary and middle schools statewide to a "Heads Up" list, their way of saying: We're not enforcing anything this year, but if we were, you'd be in trouble. But few expected that when high schools were added to the list this year that only a handful in the city -- Central, Craigmont, Overton, Ridgeway, Kirby, and White Station -- would avoid the state's list.

Dr. Oscar Love has been the principal at East since the beginning of the school year. "Since I've been in this system," he says, "East has always been one of the premier schools from an outsider's perspective. When I had a chance to come to East and work, I was pleased with that opportunity. I was surprised. I really didn't expect [to be listed]."

Built in 1948, East has long been a showplace for the district. These days it serves about 1,450 students; 97 percent African-American, 2 percent Asian, and 1 percent Caucasian. Sixty-three percent are on free or reduced lunch plans, indicating they are from low-income families.

Love says he would have been less surprised at the listing if he had been at East longer. Despite its stately facade, East simply doesn't have the test scores.

"It would have been my responsibility to monitor test scores and have a feel for the academic direction of the school," says Love, "and to provide support to maintain that standard, so I would have to know."

For the 1998-1999 school year students at East High had an average score of 17 on the ACT. On the school's state-issued report card for 2000, the school didn't fare much better. ACT scores were ranked as "Deficient" while SAT scores were "Below Average." On the TCAP Writing Assessment taken last February, 7 percent of 11th graders (excluding special education) scored a 5/strong. Forty-seven percent scored a 4/competent and 38 percent scored a 3/limited. No one scored a 6/excellent or a 1/deficient.

The Making of a List

"In every one of the schools on the [K-8] list, 48 to 73 percent of the kids were below average in reading, language arts, and mathematics," says Dr. Connie Smith, executive director of accountability for the state department of education. "These are significant problems."

Between issuing the "Heads Up" and the "On Notice" lists, the state board of education changed the criteria as to what qualifies as a low-performing school. This year, as last, the department of education used the schoolwide achievement averages as one of the indicators of a failing school, only they made the guidelines stricter. The department also looked at individual student test scores to see the progress being made by each school's lowest-performing students.

State board of education member Cherrie Holden says the criteria were changed in an effort to make the standards more equitable across the state. It was a similar concern that led to the initial conception of the list.

After a lawsuit was brought by smaller school districts in the state asking for a fairer funding formula, the state legislature enacted the Basic Education Program (BEP) in 1992. The law guaranteed equitable funding for both small and larger school districts and mandated smaller class sizes. The legislation obligated the state to help pay for the funding but put in place measures to require positive results.

Kathy Christie, vice president for knowledge management in the Education Commission of the States Clearinghouse, says that in the late '80s and early '90s legislators around the country decided they should handle school-system accountability because under their state departments of education very little seemed to be getting done to correct the problems.

"The big thing is now the process is public," she says. "Before, there were a number of low-performing schools that no one really knew about. You only knew when you stepped into them and saw there wasn't much going on."

Increasingly, local and state governing bodies have wanted clearer information about how their public schools were performing. In July 2000, two years before the BEP legislation required a low-performing schools list, the state of Tennessee released one.

"Based on what the commissioner's office told us," says Bob Archer, associate superintendent of school administration and student support for the Memphis City Schools, "there were continuing requests from the legislators to identify schools even though the law did not require it until the summer of 2002."

But releasing the list wasn't the only thing that got fast- tracked. So did the other steps of the process. Holden says the state board considered a four-year "On Notice" plan, but legislators thought that was too long.

Playing Catch-up

Although state and local educators have asserted that the new criteria will inevitably place more urban schools on the list, only Memphis had more than 20 schools named. Other districts weren't even close. Davidson County (Nashville) had 9; Hamilton County (Chattanooga) had 11. Some other smaller districts had one failing school.

"When we put together the different line items [of the new criteria], no one knew that was how it would end up," says Holden. A separate set of criteria with lower standards was even suggested for the Memphis district but not supported by much of the state board.

Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson explains it this way: "When we look at the demographics of the schools on the low-performing list and we look at the demographics of the schools in Shelby County, that tells the story of why we have more schools on the low-performing list."

The city schools have had a 25 to 27 percent mobility rate over the past three years, meaning that more than 1 out of 4 students changed schools at least once during the school year. About 70 percent of city school students are on free or reduced lunch plans. Over 100 of Memphis' schools are designated as Title I, a federally funded program for high poverty-level schools. Of the city's 64 failing schools, 47 are under Title I. Most of the failing schools not designated Title I are high schools.

Although board and staff members are quick to say that poverty is not an excuse, they acknowledge that it does play a part in making their jobs even harder.

Last year, in an effort to halt the problem, Archer directly supervised each of the low-performing schools. This year, since there are so many, the schools are once again reporting to one of three zone directors.

"We have a significant number of our students who come to us without the readiness skills that you would expect students to come to kindergarten with traditionally," says Archer. "We have significant numbers who come to school and don't know their colors; they don't know their numbers; some of them don't know their name." While such handicaps might not be insurmountable, it means the kindergarten teacher has to start teaching material at an earlier level and cover twice as much ground.

"When you start behind," says Archer, "you're always in a mode of trying to catch up."

Unfortunately, the problem isn't always corrected at the kindergarten level. Failing lower-level schools are feeding failing upper- level schools. For example, according to 1998-1999 feeder patterns, 60 percent of students at state-listed Fairley High School come from Geeter Middle School, 30 percent come from Lanier Junior High, and 6 percent come from Chickasaw Junior High. Each of those middle schools is also on the state list. Only 4 percent of Fairley's students come from Westwood Junior High, a school not on the list.

Following the feeder pattern further back shows that Geeter Middle School students come from four elementary schools. Of those, Fairley Elementary and Westhaven are both listed and make up 53 percent of the students at Geeter. At Lanier Junior High, 74 percent of the student body comes from failing elementary schools. At Chickasaw that figure is 56 percent.

This is not to say that the elementary schools are necessarily to blame. The feeder pattern doesn't always hold. Hamilton Middle School has five feeder elementaries; Fairview Junior High has six. None of their feeder schools is on notice, but both of the middle schools are. And Fairview Junior High feeds into Central and White Station, both non-list high schools. Hamilton Middle, on the other hand, feeds Hamilton High and Southside High, both of which are on the list. There are no simple answers. The problem is widespread, and since the more upper-level schools are on the list, students are more likely to enter a failing school as they progess through the system.

Even more disturbing is that the problem extends citywide. "It's almost an even distribution geographically," says Archer. "There's not a pocket in Midtown or a pocket in North Memphis or South Memphis where these schools are located. They're pretty evenly distributed throughout the city."

Of the seven geographic school board districts within the system, only District 2 had no schools on the list. That district, which includes Richland Elementary and Overton High, has only one Title I school, which suggests that the real problem is poverty.

At a meeting last Saturday, school board members discussed the city's culture of poverty, where parents aren't concerned with their children's education and students do not understand that learning is their responsibility.

"It starts at home," says board member Michael Hooks Jr. He tells of going to a school and seeing a parent trying to check a child out of school for a medical appointment. "The parent couldn't tell the school secretary one of the child's teacher's names," Hooks says. "Not one."

Even Watson, who holds himself as an example of someone who's overcome poverty, says, "The public school system cannot solve all the ills of society. The public school system did not create this problem. Poverty helped create this problem."

On Notice, On Probation, On Reconstitution?

When Watson addressed a group of reporters the morning the state announced its failing school list, he wouldn't say that all the schools would be off the list by 2004. What he said, instead, was that the district was optimistic that in a few years many of the schools would no longer be on the list.

With so many district schools listed and so many obstacles to overcome, it would be miraculous if all 64 Memphis schools were off the list in three years. Only six of the district's schools were removed from the 26 named last year.

The state department of education is legally bound to produce a list of low-performing schools every year before September 30th. Schools listed then have a year "On Notice" to show improvement. If they don't, they are cited as "On Probation." Schools that don't improve in two years are then supposedly subject to a state takeover.

State department of education commissioner Faye P. Taylor and state school board members have all said publicly and privately that there is little likelihood of a takeover. "Our intent is not a state takeover," says Holden. "We're taking the data saying, 'Hey, ya'll have a problem.' Each of those problems is a child."

"We're just going year to year," says Smith, of the state's accountability office. "We don't have specifics yet."

The first version of the law was so strongly worded that even a district with only one failing school would automatically get taken over by the state after the three-year probationary period. But an amendment that took effect July 1st gives the state some discretion as to what path it chooses to take with a district. It can still take over at the system level -- whether as a simple takeover or as a total reconstitution -- or it can take over an individual school. If a district takeover occurred, the state would have the right to force the district to use funding for certain things and would have control over many of the district's decisions. Total reconstitution, on the other hand, means that some, or all, of the school board and the superintendent would be removed from their positions and a state-appointed district manager put in place.

Right now, there are no plans either way. And at a recent Memphis board and staff conference on the failing schools, even board members seemed frustrated by the state's lack of a clear plan.

"Last year, I asked [then state education commissioner] Vernon Coffey to tell me what I'm not doing as a board commissioner to get our schools off this list," Hooks said. "I asked, 'What are you, as the state, going to do?' He said, 'We don't have a plan.'"

If the state is wary of taking over a system, or even a school, it might have good reason. There hasn't been much research done of the subject; what little there is is mostly anecdotal.

"You hear things like 'We like it because the atmosphere is better' or 'It's terrible,' because people resent having someone else come in and make their decisions for them," says Christie.

Proponents of state takeovers say it provides an opportunity for the state and local governments to combine resources to improve education and that it allows a competent executive staff to guide the implementation of school improvement efforts. Those who oppose state intervention say that a takeover implies that the state has the answers and that the process can produce showdowns between state and local groups that actually slow student improvement.

One of the success stories was a takeover in Logan County, West Virginia, where local officials collaborated with the state government. Students showed some improvement in test scores, and parents were in support of the process. Doubters say that such a case isn't hard evidence.

One of the problems is that there is no standard timetable for state takeovers. Many can go on for years. In California, the Compton Unified School District was taken over by the state, primarily for fiscal reasons. But once there, state legislators decided they needed to address the district's test scores as well. That was in 1993. The district only very recently regained partial control of its functions.

"That's the argument behind reconstitution," says Christie. "If you don't change the entire staffing of a dysfunctional school, you can't move ahead very quickly. On the flip side, there's the criticism which says that process doesn't move very quickly either."

An Education Commission of the States study done on the subject in July 1998 and updated in March of this year, suggests that state takeovers tend to be more effective at curing unwieldy bureaucracies than improving low test scores. Some states have seen modest improvement in student achievement after a takeover, but there can also be some chilling side effects.

"Despite these positive results," reads the study, "state takeovers have produced results to the contrary, such as the $70 million deficit incurred by the state-appointed administrators in Newark, New Jersey, and the 10-day teacher strike in Detroit, Michigan, which occurred six months after the mayor assumed control of the school district."

The Team Plan

While the threat of a state takeover doesn't seem a likely possibility anytime soon, the intent behind that threat is very real.

"We're going to be in serious trouble in about 15 years," says Memphis school board commissioner Sara Lewis. "These [students] are the people that are going to be making the decisions."

Last year, after the first group of schools was put on notice, Dr. Marieta Harris, associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and school effectiveness for Memphis City Schools, got together with her staff and developed a plan.

"They developed an instructional improvement initiative [III] that involved teaming groups of district-level people with a team of teachers from within each school," says Archer. In October of last year, the state sent staff members from the department of education to assist the district, and they too were incorporated into the team.

Each team member spends time in the low-performing schools, observing classes and taking down observed data. The original 26 schools will receive 20 classroom visits every six weeks; at the newly identified schools, that number is 30. During each visit, the team looks at everything from instruction to technology to the paint on the walls.

"I don't think there's a school that's been named where the people in that school haven't worked extremely hard," says Archer. "Whatever we've been doing has not been effective."

The data from the observations will then be disseminated to the principal to share with the school's staff. It's hoped that the data will help strengthen weaknesses in the schools and reinforce positive methods.

"One of the problems with this whole process ... is the limited resources. Nobody has funded additional money to deal with low- performing schools," says Archer. "Everybody has had to scramble for resources." The team members from the district were not hired especially for this project; they are people who already worked for the district and now have an added responsibility.

"The state's problem was that they developed this list of low-performing schools and identified them, and then they had to figure out how they were going to assist the districts they identified," says Archer.

What they came up with were grants where the criteria have been shifted toward low-performing schools and "Exemplary Educators" -- retired, "highly successful" educators sent into the schools to help.

"I think the Exemplary Educators were envisioned to go into the more rural school districts that maybe don't have the level of resources that we have here and actually become the reform person. They would go into a school and work with the principal and say, 'I'm going to show you how to fix this school,'" says Archer. Because Memphis already had a plan, the Exemplary Educator's role became that of a mentor or coach for some of the district's younger and more inexperienced teachers.

"When you start trying to point out why the students are not achieving at the level they're supposed to, it's a very complicated and complex question. That's one of those where if you had an answer, you could write a book, retire, forget it, and cure everything," says Archer. "The state doesn't have the silver bullet either."

But in every conversation on how to fix failing schools, there's an element of teamwork. The state is committed to working with the individual districts. The city school system is committed to working with the state. Even at East, Love says one of his goals is for the school staff to work better as a team.

"What I look for first of all," he says, "is building a team and creating team spirit."

Love might as well be speaking for the district. In the coming weeks the superintendent and his staff are hoping to unveil their plan to make the entire community part of the team.

"We can't do it by ourselves. We can't," says Archer. "I admit that up front. We need the support of the entire community to get this job done."

You can e-mail Mary Cashiola at cashiola@memphisflyer.com.


Memphis' Failing Schools

Airways Middle

Booker T. Washington High

Brookmeade Elementary

Carver High*

Chickasaw Junior High

Corning Elementary

Cypress Junior High

Denver Elementary

Dunbar Elementary

East High

Fairley Elementary

Fairley High

Fairview Junior High

Frayser Elementary

Frayser High*

Geeter Middle

Georgian Hills Elementary

Georgian Hills Junior High

Graceland Elementary

Hamilton High

Hamilton Middle

Hawkins Mill Elementary

Hillcrest High*

Hollywood Elementary

Humes Middle

Kingsbury High

Lanier Junior High

Larose Elementary

Lester Elementary

Levi Elementary

Lincoln Elementary

Locke Elementary

Longview Middle

Manassas High

Melrose High

Middle College High

Mitchell High

Northside High

Oakhaven High*

Orleans Elementary

Raineshaven Elementary

Raleigh Egypt High

Raleigh Egypt Middle

Riverview Middle

Shannon Elementary

Sharpe Elementary

Sheffield Elementary

Sheffield High*

Sherwood Middle

Southside High

Spring Hill Elementary

Springdale Elementary

Treadwell Elementary

Treadwell High*

Trezevant High*

Vance Middle

Westhaven Elementary

Westside High*

Westwood Elementary

Westwood High

Whitehaven High

Whitney Elementary

Winchester Elementary

Wooddale High

* denotes schools on notice at both high and junior high levels

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