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VOL. 127 | NO. 157 | Monday, August 13, 2012

Planners Already Looking to Next School Year

By Bill Dries

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The school year just began in the county’s two public school system, but planning for the 2013-2014 school year is already under way on numerous fronts.

The one being watched closest is the schools merger front.

In California, 13 teacher residents for Aspire Public Schools are working with mentor teachers in the charter schools Aspire operates there. It is in preparation for teaching at two charters Aspire will open here next school year as part of the state’s Achievement School District.

They will interview later for jobs in the K-5 schools that will expand to become K-8 charters over several school years.

Allison Leslie, the executive director of Aspire’s Memphis region, has been in the city for a month taking in the dramatic events making historic changes to public education in Memphis.

“I’m learning about Memphis every day,” she said.

This fall, Leslie and the rest of her staff will begin the process of matching Aspire to two low performing schools that Aspire would operate out of starting in August 2013.

They will be Aspire’s first schools outside California and Aspire’s first experience with the ASD process in which charter operators are picked first and then matched with the schools that are among the bottom five percent in the state in terms of students achievement.

The ASD’s central goal is to bring those schools into the top 25 percent in five years.

“We have assumed responsibility for a school before – a school that wasn’t performing,” Leslie said. “We have also opened schools where the students who were zoned to that school are the students who are eligible to attend rather than having an open enrollment approach. … This process we’re going through this fall is new for us.”

Aspire operates 34 charters schools in California. Those schools have included a Catholic school and stepping in at a low performing charter school. The method for Aspire’s entry in many cases in California has been to have families with children in a certain school sign a petition calling for the conversion of the school to a charter run by Aspire. They then submit the petition to the local school board with a charter application.

“Each school is pretty unique in the approach,” she said. “We’ve had schools that the enrollment was really low and the district was thinking about closing the building. … I can’t say there is a uniform approach to all 34 schools.”

Leslie has worked for Aspire for 12 years and, like ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, she says charter schools that succeed aren’t working with secret methods or breakthrough methods.

She said the key is “the amount of flexibility and autonomy that we have to make changes that are in the best interest of students as quickly as possible.”

“I also think that we are relentless about using data to make decisions and drive instruction,” Leslie added.

Key to education reforms across that state has been the extraordinary amount of student performance data Tennessee has amassed with a data system that goes back 20 years. The existence of the data was critical to changes to state laws that now allow the data to be used in making teacher tenure decisions and evaluate teachers.

Intervention with students based on the data isn’t unique to charter schools. It is a concept conventional public schools in Shelby County are working with on a daily basis.

And David Mansouri of the statewide education reform group Tennessee SCORE – State Collaborative On Reforming Education – said the strategy is to use the data for more than hiring or retention decisions for teachers.

“Fundamentally we think that providing good data, providing lots of data for teachers to be able to make good decisions about what they are doing in their classroom every week, every month and not just every year is a really good thing,” he said. “You can’t just say we are going to give you your data once a year. In many ways, that is too late.”

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