A TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART

Yesterday was one of the most spiritual days of my life. I’ll be honest with you, I was one of those people who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about during the lead up to yesterday’s eclipse. I knew it was a rare occurrence, one that few people ever get a chance to experience. Being married to an educator meant that we spent a lot of time leading up to the event discussing what it would look like. My wife has an illustration utilizing glasses on a table that she likes to use to demonstrate what transpires during an eclipse. But I just underestimated the spirituality and humbling aspect of this natural occurrence.

Eclipse day found me bartending a private viewing party. The house was one of the newer ones built in the Edgehill area right downtown. They had a rooftop deck, as did all their neighbors, perfect for viewing. As I set things up, there seemed to be a palpable air of excitement.

At about 1:10 pm, as the eclipse itself was in progress, I looked out across the roofs and saw a sea people, laughing, interacting, taking pictures, and occasionally gazing skyward. This natural occurrence was bringing people together in a manner usually reserved for Super Bowls, World Cups, and New Year’s Eve festivities.

At 1:28 pm, as the eclipse reached totality, a dusk-like darkness engulfed the rooftops and an eerie hush settled.  It was all very humbling as the realization sunk in that we were witnessing an event that has transpired since the dawn of time uninfluenced by man himself.

As the eclipse began to recede, that feeling of having just witnessed something supernatural in nature remained. Everywhere you looked people were turning to each other and remarking things like:

“How cool was that?”

“That was pretty damn cool, wasn’t it?”

“Amazing.”

It truly was an amazing experience that in this time of division brought us all together for one day. I spent the rest of the day perusing friends’ social media posts and was rewarded by a renewed sense of community. One friend remarked that it was like the universe rebooted. I have to agree. Thank you, Mother Nature, we needed that.

STUDENT DATA

As we reported on Friday, there is a battle brewing between urban districts and the state over new legislation that requires districts to turn over student data to local charter school operators. The order is part of the recently passed Tennessee High Quality Charter Act. Charter schools argue that the data is needed to inform families of their options, or as it’s better known, recruiting. Urban districts are arguing that turning over student data violates federal statutes.

On Monday, Tennessee State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent word to Memphis schools that she wasn’t buying that argument and expected them to turn over their data within 30 days. In a letter to Memphis Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, McQueen opined, “This is the only way to enable and support parents in making truly informed decisions about their children’s education.”

Memphis schools has acknowledged receipt of the letter and are said to be looking at their options. It’s not hard to imagine Nashville and Memphis joining forces to push back on this initiative. Both have long seen funding earmarked for traditional schools erode as charter school numbers grow. Knoxville and Chattanooga’s stance will be a little harder to gauge as neither has been hit with as much charter growth over the last several years as Nashville and Memphis have. Chattanooga also has a new superintendent, Bryan Johnson, who just took office in June and is still trying to get the lay of the land.

According to today’s Tennessean, Nashville has received a similar letter to Memphis ordering them to comply with the new state law and turn over information. Board Chair Anna Shepherd would like to stop the practice of turning over data to charter schools. She’s quoted in the Tennessean as saying, “Parents didn’t fill out their contact information with a charter school logo; they filled it out with an MNPS logo. If we share that information, it’s a betrayal of trust.” I’m not quite sure why she’s overly concerned with trust here versus making sure kids’ drinking water at school is clean. Unfortunately, MNPS is well aware of what happens when they deny the state as they did in 2012 by denying the charter application for Great Hearts Academy. That one cost 3.4 million dollars. Let’s see where this one goes.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS

A couple weeks ago, I reported how the number of students taking the WIDA exam who scored high enough to graduate from EL services dropped significantly this year. In case you are not familiar, WIDA is the main tool of measurement that Tennessee school districts utilize in order to determine if students whose first language is not English are ready to exit English Language services. Last year, 14% of students scored high enough to exit, but this year it was only 1%.

A major reason for the drop is that WIDA got harder this past year. For 2017, and going forward, WIDA is committed to raising the bar for language proficiency. The goal being to more closely match scoring to ESSA requirements. I’ve heard it remarked that in previous years, a child who hit the benchmark to exit wouldn’t necessarily be considered proficient in language skills by general education standards. That is not the case this year.

There is a huge impetus to get non-English speaking children’s language skills proficient in as rapid a pace as possible, thus enabling them to exit EL services as quickly as possible. In order to make sure the state was still exiting as many children as possible, the TNDOE responded to the increased rigor of WIDA by lowering the state standards. This enabled the state to again exit about 15% of students.

The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t ensure that all those who now qualify are actually qualified. It also raises the bar back up next without a clear cut plan to ensure we don’t have to lower standards again next year. I understand the need to get students out of EL services as quickly as possible, but I think it’s equally important to make sure students are actually ready as well.

There is a bit of a myth that students who are receiving EL services are not getting a robust educational experience. Per a recent article in Education Week, “The perception somehow is that when they’re getting a service, an ELL service or in a bilingual program, that somehow they’re not getting a rich academic curriculum. Then somehow you get to the mainstream class and it’s the promised land,” said Kathy Escamilla, an education professor at the University of Colorado and former president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. “If kids aren’t ready… you’re still putting them in the situation where they don’t know enough English to be successful. It’s especially a problem with redesignation criteria that are too low.” I know firsthand that MNPS’s EL services are providing a quality well-rounded curriculum, and therefore we need to be careful that we are actually doing what’s best for the students.

WIDA does not endorse the changing of cut scores in response to increased expectations of the WIDA assessment but instead leaves that decision to the individual states. Most states set their scores at a 4 or a 5. A score of 5 under the new structure means that a student has the ability to engage in debates, listing examples, and justifying their responses. Hmm… I’m wondering if some of our native English-speaking students would be able to score a 5 if they were given the exam. As I previously mentioned, Tennessee has cut their score to 4.2.

I plan to spend more time diving into this in the future, so stay tuned.

POLLS

Each week I’m seeing more and more responses to my poll questions and for that I am very grateful. Your participation is a source of elucidation. Let’s look at this week’s responses.

The first question was in regards to the ongoing issue of lead in MNPS school’s water. I wanted to get your feelings on how the district was handling the problem. This question received the most responses, and they were overwhelmingly negative. 59% gave the district an “F” and 27% of you gave the district a “D. That’s nearly 90% of you giving a less than passing grade.

I will admit to being baffled by the 3 respondents who gave the district a “B.” Where exactly is the bar set? MNPS failed to shut off water with high levels revealed by repeated tests. They failed to notify parents or even principals of the risk and have yet to acknowledge the danger they placed children in. Admittedly, since my children attend a school in question, this issue is a bit personal for me, but I can’t understand why this has not generated more outrage. Maybe that’ll be a poll question for next week.

Interestingly enough, Channel 5 has produced 7 stories on the issue while the Tennessean has one. That story fails to mention the readings of the tests and attempts to downplay the issue and focus on the mere fact that MNPS is testing water. Many of the kids exposed to high lead in the water come to MNPS from refugee camps. Camps where they were already exposed to unsafe conditions. To place them in danger again is, to me, unconscionable. Here are the write-in responses:

Horrible job. Truly not sure we have the right people in leadership – no skills 1
50 1
They should be forced to drink it

Question 2 asked what subject you would like to see taken up on the school board floor. This year, more and more conversations have been relegated to committee meetings than in the past. Board Chair Anna Shepard says this a more appropriate venue for those conversations and that meeting are still open to community members. That’s all fine and good, but the end result is more meetings for parents to try to keep up with that are not as well publicized as full board meetings. I wanted to know what subjects were worthy of full board attention.

Looking at results, it seems that teacher recruitment and retention is a subject weighing heavily on your mind. That was the number one answer with 27% of respondents. Teacher shortages are a national crisis. However, that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for MNPS not being able to fill positions, but rather a call for them to develop a more robust strategy. Here’s a news flash for everyone as well: Culture matters, and just saying it has always been bad won’t improve it and shouldn’t be acceptable.

The number two answer, with 16%, was the Director of School’s evaluation. The situation at Antioch HS was third with 13%. I’m not sure the two shouldn’t be tied together seeing as the principal at Antioch is a friend of Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s from Prince George’s County Schools, and he has given her unequivocal support despite mounting evidence that she is not qualified for the position. Rumor has it that there will be an evaluation for the director that is completed in September. Board policy calls for the evaluation to take place in January and June.

Here are the write-in responses to question #2. There are a lot of them.

Hiring practices, leadership compensation and orga 1
sept 1 decision 1
Discipline or the fact that discipline is disappearing. 1
All of the above 1
Human Resources Procedure/transparency 1
Non-magnet HS start times. 1
paying for Execs to get a Dr. with district $ that could go to kids 1
The mass that has left sylvan park 1
excessive testing – tla, map, district benchmark, tnready – it’s insane! 1
All of the above EXCEPT charter issues! 1
Teacher workload, lack of planning time 1
All the $ to new leadership, vendors, & travel 1
All of the above +bus driver shortages, flight of families from middle school 1
We can’t pick more than one?!

The last question was in regards to a letter recently sent home to parents at Antioch HS notifying them that the school did not have enough qualified teachers and therefore instruction would take place via digital learning. I should note here that last year, Antioch lost 67 teachers and has already lost 3 this year.

Seventy-five percent of you said that if faced with the prospect of your child having to participate in a virtual school, you would have an adverse reaction. To be fair, it was pointed out that MNPS’s virtual school was one of the highest performing schools in Metro. Here’s that comment in its entirety in case you missed it:

The MNPSVS is one of the highest performing schools in Metro – did you know that? Check out the test scores. It isn’t a fix-all and not for every student, but definitely has its place. To imply that it’s a poor form of education is unfortunate. Many of our district MS students have the opportunity to earn HS credit and to enrich their education by taking VS classes and entering HS with credit already earned. Did you know that? Are you aware that Hume-Fogg students, and other HS students, often take VS classes to make space in their schedule for courses they otherwise couldn’t fit in, or for classes that are not offered at their site? The MNPSVS is not remediation or credit recovery. It is an aggressively academic program that is a good fit for many students as well as a good intro to students who may encounter online classes in college.

Here are the write-in responses:

I would be at the BOE daily till it was resolved! 1
I would prefer it to hiring an ineffective teacher just to have a body. 1
I would be very concerned and would immediately contact the school . 1
It happened to us at Big Picture. The courses are awful. Tests dont match lesson 1
I would wonder why teachers don’t want to work at that school. 1
Totally unacceptable 1
Ok if it’s quality. But mnps’s is not quality. 1
Unacceptable. Get rid of principals that are bullies 1
Angry considering it wasn’t discussed….

That does it for our review. As always, I’ll see you Friday. You can send all comments to norinrad10@yahoo.com. Have a great week.

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