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How Achievement Schools in Memphis are Trying to Give Students a Better Future
Across the nation, states and school districts are experimenting with strategies to reach low-performing students, many of whom live and attend school in high-poverty neighborhoods. Tim Ware deals with this challenge every day as executive director of the Achievement Schools in Memphis, Tennessee. The five campuses he oversees are part of the Achievement School District, which the state of Tennessee created to focus specifically on campuses that rank in the bottom five percent of the state’s schools. Known as Priority Schools, these campuses are part of a network of both traditional district schools and charter schools.
Ware’s commitment to his Memphis community was bolstered through his participation in the 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholars class. As part of his responsibility as a Presidential Leadership Scholar, Ware developed a project to empower students to advocate for justice in their Memphis neighborhood.
In this email exchange, he explains how he and his team work with students and educators to improve academic achievement. As Ware notes, this is a calling, not just a job. And the calling is to meet the needs of students who otherwise might be left behind.
What strategies work best in getting the schools you work with off the academic priority list?
Strategy 1 – Know Your Community
“You can’t understand a problem you are trying to solve if you are not proximate to the problem.” – Bryan Stevenson.
I believe that knowing the community in which we are serving is probably the single most important activity that we need to engage in if we are going to help transform the schools that have been under-performing for decades into bastions of learning. Empowering outcomes for scholars will not occur in the absence of close and meaningful collaboration with the community in which the children live. Get proximate. Get to know the community.
To know the community, we need to spend time in the community. (Side note – most residents don’t consider the time spent inside the school to be the same thing as spending time in the community. That’s a freebie for you.) We need to engage in conversations at the local grocery store. We need to hear the aspirations of the parents who are watching their children play ball at the community center. We need to see the blight that our children walk past each day on their way to school. We need to hug the grandmother whose warmth sustains the child who slept with no heat. We need to know the father who we see at the bus stop each day, mechanics outfit on, committed to raising his children to be people of character.
Why is this important? It’s simple: when we get to know our community, we recognize the assets and strengths that exist within the community, we can affirm the leadership that already exists within the community, and by doing so, we see much more clearly what role we can play in transforming the schools in which we serve.
Strategy 2 – Know Your Calling
Standing in the gap for the communities that have grappled with schools that aren’t preparing scholars for success in life is tough. I can’t sugar coat it. It’s not for the weak. It is a calling. Don’t forget it. Stay grounded.
An unfortunate reality is that it too often appears that the only thing that some people seem to dislike more than the “opportunity gap” is the people who bear the scars of being impacted by the opportunity gap. People who think this way aren’t “called.” If you don’t value the perspective of the mother standing in front of you because she didn’t properly conjugate her verbs while she was addressing her concerns, then, no, you aren’t called. Step aside and make way for someone who is.
Why is a calling to this work important? Because serving and leading in a Priority School context necessarily means that there are parents who are frustrated by what they perceive as an educational systems disinterest in serving their child.
Parents are angry because they believe that they are watching their son’s or daughter’s future being slowly stripped away by the very institution that is supposed to prepare them to conquer the world. Serving and leading here means that many scholars’ curiosity and wonder has been eclipsed by the boredom of worksheets and an apathy towards the non-teaching that passes for instruction.
Walking in these halls means that you must be prepared to counter the trauma that will inevitably walk through the doors of the school each day. Yep, the young man whose mother was shot and killed on Friday evening is in school on Monday morning. The eight elementary age children who witnessed a shooting at the playground 12 hours earlier are sitting in classrooms right now.
If you want to meet the needs of our children in this context – emotional, psychological, social, and academic – you need to have a calling. The calling has to drown out the voices that are telling you that the work is too hard, the sacrifices are too great.
To the called, our reason for being here and our commitment to being here far exceeds the scope of challenges that we will face while teaching. Those that are called, come.
Strategy 3 – Know Your Content
This may seem pretty self-evident to committed educators, but I believe it is worth saying. You can’t lead where you haven’t been. To lead your children to mastery of material, you need to have mastered the material yourself. If you are going to prepare scholars for life by teaching specific academic content, then you need to fully understand the content and have such a deep appreciation of it that your passion captures both the imagination and interests of the scholars that you are engaging.
As an instructor, this requires that you have a deep understanding of your materials. If you are not there yet, don’t worry. Commit to perpetual personal growth. Learn your content well enough to stretch the mind of the gifted scholar that is in your class, while at the same time making the concepts accessible to the youngster next to her who is two-grade levels behind.
This doesn’t happen overnight. This happens when we adopt a growth mindset for ourselves and our scholars. We know that our kids can compete with anyone when adults legitimately believe in their ability, set high expectations for them, and create the context in which they can be successful in learning.
These three strategies are the key ingredients for a recipe that results in schools breaking trends of historical underperformance. The sauce that pulls these ingredients together is consistency.
*Consistency in the affirmation of parents as the leaders of their child’s education.
*Consistency in the planning, delivery, and observation of high-quality instruction.
*Consistency in the review of teacher and student data.
*Consistency in the alignment of support and development with the data.
*Consistency in the expectations of students in and out of the classroom.
*Consistency in creating and maintaining meaningful touch points with families and members of the community.
*Consistency in affirming the talents and the brilliance that lives within our scholars.
Consistency of aligned actions fueled by a deep knowledge of your community, your calling, and your content will result in truly revolutionary outcomes for the children that we serve.
How do you all recruit, train, and develop teachers to work with students who face serious academic challenges?
Recruitment of teachers who are excited about tackling the task of transforming the academic outcomes of students who are attending chronically under-performing schools can be challenging. You are looking for the person who gets excited about the potential of succeeding where others have struggled. You’re looking for that rare gem who thrives off of their own failure because they use it as a data point that informs their personal growth.
In short, they need to be confident enough in themselves to believe with absolute certainty that they can win on the same field where many others have lost, and yet they must be humble enough to constantly learn from others and to accept personal failure as a part of the process.
While this person may seem like a unicorn, in my experience there are many, many passionate educators across the country that fit this profile. So how do you recruit them?
You hire a school leader who can cast a compelling vision of what is possible and who then creates the conditions within the building for the success of both the scholars and the team tasked with equipping the children with the skills they need to live lives of purpose and destiny.
Once this person has joined the team, there are three strands of ongoing training that need to be a part of effective turnaround school efforts:
- Understanding trauma and how it impacts teaching and learning environments. There is an ever increasing body of research that details ways that educators can effectively counter the impacts of trauma. I list this strand first because I have yet to walk in to a Priority School in which high levels of student trauma is not present.
- Understanding how to engage in transformational teaching for a broad spectrum of student learners. Remember I mentioned the classroom that had the gifted scholar sitting right next to the scholar who was two-grade levels behind? That’s incredibly common in Priority Schools. For my fellow educators who are reading this, please know that this bucket refers to both content knowledge and pedagogy (all of the pedagogies).
- Understanding the uniqueness of the community in which we serve. School turnaround will not happen in the absence of a close collaboration with the community that is rooted in mutual respect for each other.
Despite the demands of the work, we as school leaders must make the development of teachers and team members a top priority. If we want to position our teams to successfully teach our children, we must create the space for training and growth.
How does data inform the work of the schools you manage? How do you use it to drive achievement?
If I were planning a vacation with my wife and daughter, the first thing I need to know is my destination. The second thing that I need to know is my starting point.
Why did I choose these two pieces of information? Because these two bits of "data" inform every other decision that I make as I plan to take this trip. For example, if my destination is Dubai, and I'm at my home in Memphis, then I immediately understand a couple of things. I recognize a car, bus, or train won't get me there. I need a plane. Here's a curveball. There are no direct flights from Memphis to Dubai. So I need to add a tier to my strategy that accounts for this data point: I need to get to another airport, so that we can get on the plane to take us to our destination.
We could add multiple layers and nuances to this analogy, but I'll keep it simple for now. In our schools the first two data points we need to have clarity on are:
1) Where we are going: This is usually defined by a set of state standards and will be measured by a state assessment.
2) Where we are starting from: We need beginning-of-year baseline information about an individual student’s academic areas of strength and their academic areas that need additional supports. These are critical. They define our starting point.
So, here's what we know: Our big destination is grade-level mastery of state standards, but our starting points are incredibly varied. Some scholars are in a place where they can immediately hop on the plane and settle in for their non-stop flight to Dubai.
Other scholars aren't yet in a place where they can access the direct flight. Their starting point is different. In order to make sure they can get to Dubai, we will need to add some tiers to our strategy.
We may need to walk with them to a bus stop that takes us to a train station, which takes us to an airport, where we will catch a flight to another airport, and then we will head to Dubai.
I recognize that this is an uber simplistic way to think about the robust and often confusing sets of data that often are thrust upon educators. However, when you cut through the clutter here is the value of student data:
- It identifies an end goal or destination;
- It lets us know each scholar’s starting point;
- It informs our selection of strategies;
- It creates meaningful check-points along the way; and
- It lets us know if we made it to our destination.
What impact does chronic absenteeism have on your schools? How do you reduce the number of students who regularly miss class?
When I was a principal I used to tell my parents, “I will guarantee you that we will have a top quality teacher leading every one of our classrooms every single day. My commitment to you is that our teacher will understand the uniqueness of your child’s learning style. I am promising you that rigorous bell-to-bell instruction will take place in each class, each day. But Mom, Dad, none of that matters if your child isn’t here.”
Every year that I served as a school leader whose scholars were 99% African American and nearly 90% Free and Reduced Price Lunch, we exceeded the state’s expectations for attendance. We were also one of the highest performing public schools in the state, in a large part because our scholars showed up to benefit from the instruction that we were providing.
It is almost universally true that consistently under-performing schools have a serious attendance problem. I recognize the chicken-and-egg nature of this problem so I’m not going to debate the merits of the two sides of that argument. What I will say is this: if you want kids to learn in your building, they need to be present.
How have we increased attendance? By building strong relationships with parents so that they trust that we are playing our role in equipping their child with the tools they need to live a fulfilling life. By ensuring the parents that the dreams which they have for their children are being honored within our halls.
We identify attendance as a key lever and we celebrate the children and the families that overcome all the transportation related obstacles associated with poverty and show up for school each day. When a child is absent, we reach out to see where they are.
If we can address the issue ourselves we do. If a child needs a clean shirt, we let them use one. If they aren’t in school because they don’t have hygiene products, then we provide them with what they need. When a child is missing school because Granddad’s diabetes is “messin’ with his feet” and he lives within the walking zone (it’s called the parental responsibility zone, and in Memphis it is two miles even for elementary students), then we call a social service agency and try to coordinate a ride. We will do whatever it takes because we know it matters.
There are times when the name on the school marquee or the sticker on the classroom wall aren’t enough to ensure that children can get to school each day. In the Achievement Schools Network, we have found it incredibly valuable to partner with wraparound service providers (social work agencies for example) to work closely with families who need added supports to make sure their children are in school each day.
I feel like I should shout as loudly as I can, that no district, no school, or no charter management organization can tackle these challenges alone. Nope. This is an “us” battle. We are better together. But I digress…
Let’s get back to increasing attendance rates. It is not coincidental that the schools in the Achievement Schools Network that are experiencing the most rapid scholar growth are also the schools that are most effectively increasing attendance rates. Those of us who have experienced any degree of success know that in some way it starts with being present. In the words of my father, “You can’t show out if you don’t show up!”
William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.
Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.
Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.
Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.
McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.Full Bio
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