Leaving

Ramirez resigns as academics chief for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Heidi Ramirez has resigned as chief of academics for Shelby County Schools, less than 2½  years after coming to Memphis to help turn around the fledgling district following a massive restructuring of the city’s education landscape.

In a letter emailed Tuesday morning to district principals and instructional leaders, Ramirez said she was leaving “to be closer to loved ones and take on new challenges.”

“I am so proud of the great work we have been able to accomplish together,” she wrote. “Together, we have accelerated implementation of both supports for struggling learners and good first teaching — especially in literacy, while also improving the overall climate for learning for both students and staff.”

Shelby County Schools confirmed Tuesday that her resignation is effective March 31, and Ramirez wrote that she would “ensure a successful transition process.”

Her resignation comes a little over a month after a restructuring of district leadership that included the promotion of Innovation Zone leader Sharon Griffin to chief of schools. Ramirez, who was hired as chief academic officer, became chief of academics. Meanwhile, Griffin took on some of the responsibilities previously shouldered by Ramirez and Brad Leon, now chief of strategy and performance management. All three serve on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet.

Ramirez came to Memphis from Milwaukee Public Schools. She previously was associate dean for the College of Education and director for Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University, and at one time served on Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.

When she arrived in Memphis in 2014, she was tasked with helping to increase the number of students reading on grade level, as well as the district’s graduation rate.

Those efforts may be starting to pay off.

She spearheaded a comprehensive literacy plan that pushed to improve reading skills across the curriculum. Last year, the district earned high marks for literacy growth for high school students who took the state’s TNReady test. However, overall growth scores were down, and the district is still far from its Destination 2025 goal of boosting third-grade reading proficiency to 90 percent by 2025.

Graduation rates have seen a slight bump, too. Some 78.7 percent of seniors received their diplomas in 2016, up from 75 percent the previous school year.

“I’m most proud of the work (we) have done to raise and reinforce expectations for our students,” she wrote, “and the continued evidence … that all of our children can achieve to high standards of career and college readiness…”

In her letter, Ramirez trumpets that student attendance is up and suspensions are down. She cites improvements in kindergarten readiness and student access to complex tests, and also notes that the growth in graduation rates extends to the district’s large population of black students, those with disabilities, and English language learners.

In a statement, Hopson praised Ramirez, especially for her work on Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan.

“(Her) vision has helped enhance planning and coordination across all of our academic departments and stakeholders — from teachers and coaches to school and district leaders,” he said.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that the district will look to tweak the job description in collaboration with Griffin before Ramirez leaves. “With all the work she’s done, I think we’re going to take it to the next level,” he said.

With approximately 105,000 students, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest school district, the result of a 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools, followed by the exit a year later of six suburban municipalities that started their own school system.

Correction, February 21, 2017: This article has been updated to include the correct percentages of graduation rates for Shelby County Schools. A previous version listed the state percentages instead of the district’s.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Holcomb calls for changes to Indiana diplomas and more computer science in annual address

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addresses lawmakers during his 2018 State of the State speech.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s second major address to Hoosiers stuck closely to his biggest education policy priority for 2018: Ensuring students are prepared for life after high school.

“We must ensure that every Hoosier student receives an education infused with STEM subjects, critical thinking skills and the intellectual curiosity that prepares them for lifelong learning,” Holcomb said. “So when they graduate from high school, they have a ticket to their future success, be it going on to college or entering the workforce to realize a fulfilling career.”

His speech Tuesday night didn’t break much new ground, and some main themes — such as emphasizing science education and job training — are holdovers from last year. But while K-12 education has never been Holcomb’s strong suit, his remarks did indicate the importance the Republican governor is placing on adjusting the education system to better address his economic goals and showed he would be willing to even put money behind the effort.

His remarks on education — which took only a few minutes of his 30-minute speech before the legislature — appeared to align with a couple of key bills winding their ways through the Indiana General Assembly.

A bill to create a single state diploma has the support of some Republican legislative leaders so far, as well as state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. It’s not clear exactly where Holcomb comes down on this issue, but he did call for changes to the state’s current system, which has four separate diplomas.

“Late last year, Indiana’s State Board of Education took a crucial step by approving new graduation pathways for high school students beginning in 2019,” Holcomb said. “And this year, we must advance a more relevant high school diploma so that every student graduates with a diploma that is their opportunity to advance to the next step along their path.”

Read: Indiana’s new high school graduation rules were widely opposed by parents and educators. The state board approved them anyway.

Holcomb also said he supports a plan requiring all district and charter schools to teach about computer science in grades K-12, which would include funding so schools can train teachers in the subject area. The money, in the $2 million-dollar range, would come from several existing funds. Currently, about 42 percent of schools in the state offer such instruction.

“This year … we’ll enact legislation to require every Indiana K-12 school to offer computer science courses,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll pay for the teacher professional development they’ll need to inspire their students.”

Here he differs from McCormick, who supports giving more science, technology, engineering and math education to students, but doesn’t want to make it mandatory for districts.

“We want to see it offered to students,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “Their academic path is a decision they need to drive along with the input of their parents, and local educators and counselors.”

Leading state Democrats felt Holcomb’s speech lacked specificity and vision, particularly in the area of job training.

“I was struck more by what he didn’t say,” said Rep. Terry Goodin, House Minority leader and former superintendent. “I guess I was expecting more of a bold vision or bold idea in terms of what do we need to do to the workforce system here in Indiana.”

Yet Republicans cheered some of Holcomb’s goals on job training, acknowledging how unusual it is that legislative leaders and the governor would be on the same page on major priorities.

“I’ve worked with seven different governors, this is somewhat of a unique session,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma. “We’re all on the same page that workforce is the most critical issue.”

Below, you can find more excerpts from Holcomb’s speech.

On job training

“Over the next year, we’ll use the newly created Education to Career Pathways Cabinet — led by Secretary Blair Milo, Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, Commissioner Teresa Lubbers, DWD Commissioner Fred Payne and OMB Director Micah Vincent — to set the framework to guide regions and communities.

By next year, we must be armed with the framework to drive legislative action, including funding changes. But now, lawmakers, we need your support to position this cabinet for success to ensure our school-age Hoosiers are gaining the experiences and skills they need to thrive in our ever-changing global economy.”

On expanding education programs

“We’ll also take better advantage of programs with proven results, such as the Jobs for America’s Graduates program — or JAG. Last month, I agreed to become the chairman of this terrific national program that helps at-risk students complete their high school diplomas.

I’m committed to expanding JAG. It works. So, as we evaluate programs over the next year, we’ll maximize existing resources and work with the private sector to add 250 more programs all across Indiana within the next five years.”

Read more about Holcomb’s background, first year in office, 2018 education plans and more.

to the left to the left

Teachers unions are ‘thrilled’ by Gov. Cuomo’s education agenda, but school funding remains in play

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Just three years ago, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was locked in a ferocious policy battle with the powerful state teachers union, he mocked those whose only idea to improve schools is “more money, more money, more money.”

All that extra funding had ever achieved, he said then, was mediocre academic results, “a larger and larger bureaucracy and higher salaries.”

But now, as Cuomo prepares to seek a third term this fall and eyes a potential presidential bid in 2020, he’s changed his tune.

In his agenda-setting State of the State speech last week, he proposed a slate of uncontroversial, union-friendly education proposals — the continuation of a yearslong shift away from the controversial policies involving teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other issues that put him at odds with teachers unions in 2015.

Most significantly, he’s dropped the argument that New York gets too little in return for the amount it spends on schools, instead calling last week for the state to continue its “historic investment in public education.”

However, it remains to be seen whether his rhetoric will translate into a big boost in dollars. The state faces a budget crunch and looming federal spending cuts, which has Republican lawmakers calling for fiscal restraint. Meanwhile, advocates question how serious Cuomo is about sending more money to schools.

So far, we have no reason to think the reality of his budget will meet the rhetoric,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education.

Despite his past wariness about unchecked education spending, Cuomo has actually expanded that part of the state’s budget over his two terms as governor.

Last year, he negotiated a $1.1 billion hike in state education aid, which he touted as the “largest investment in the history of the state.” Over the past seven years, he has boosted school spending by more than $6 billion to $25.8 billion last year — its highest level ever, a Cuomo spokeswoman pointed out.

However, advocates are still smarting from Cuomo’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt last year to make changes to a formula designed to funnel money to high-poverty school districts. Advocates said the changes would have allowed the state to withhold funding that those districts are owed under a decade-old lawsuit, but officials disputed that claim and said the governor still planned to give high-needs schools their due.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo railed against “funding inequities” and called for increased aid to poor districts. However, last year’s battle over the funding formula has left advocates doubting Cuomo’s sincerity.

“So far with him, school aid has been an exercise in the ‘hunger games’,” Easton said. “If he’s just going to give a little more to the neediest districts but still leave them way underfunded, then he’s just playing games.”

State officials said any suggestion that the governor has underfunded schools is “patently false.”

If school-funding advocates remain leery of Cuomo, the teachers unions — once the governor’s fiercest enemies — have mostly made peace with them as they rally around a common enemy: President Trump and his allies in Congress.

“We’ve had differences in the past. We’ve had fights with him,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of New York City’s teachers union. But they are now united in their opposition to President Trump’s agenda, which he called “an existential threat to our core principles.”

“We’re working together,” said Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, in a separate interview. He said the union is “thrilled” with Cuomo’s move in their direction.

Cuomo and the state legislature must still hash out this year’s budget, the largest chunk of which traditionally goes to schools. So far, state Republicans, who control the senate, have sent mixed messages on spending.

Carl Marcellino, who chairs the senate education committee, told Politico New York: “For the most part, education will continue to grow.” But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has urged caution about increasing spending. On Tuesday, he proposed a series of tax cuts, which could restrict revenue to the state.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s budget negotiations, some observers remain skeptical that Cuomo is truly committed to a labor-backed education agenda centered on increased spending.

“I’m not sure that he’s more progressive — I think he’s simply highlighting a more progressive agenda,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “To my mind, he’s the same old Cuomo.