Curricular Counsel: Memphis academic chief talks turnaround plans, COVID-19 lessons learned

Over the course of his 17 years in education, Antonio Burt has established a track record for turning around troubled schools. Beginning his career as a middle school social studies, history and geography teacher, he was eventually selected for the New Leaders for New Schools principal training program and led one of Memphis, Tennessee’s first Innovation Zone, or iZone, turnaround schools.

That school became one of the highest-performing in the district, which put him on the radar of Florida’s Pinellas County, where he was put in charge of five struggling schools that had been dubbed “failure factories” by the Tampa Bay Times. There, he was credited with three of the schools improving their grades during his year-and-a-half tenure before he returned to Shelby County Schools in Memphis to serve as assistant superintendent and, now, chief academic officer.

Education Dive recently caught up with Burt to learn about his approach to turnaround curriculum as the state plans to return schools from its Achievement School District to Shelby County’s control, as well as what the district learned during COVID-19 shutdowns and parents’ growing respect for teachers.

EDUCATION DIVE: Considering your background with turnaround schools, and given that the state is handing back a lot of those schools to the district by 2022, what’s the district turnaround plan from a curriculum standpoint?

ANTONIO BURT: So, recently the state passed legislation where the schools were supposed to come back at the end of 2022, but now they’ve extended it to 2024. We’re trying to work in partnership with the state to develop a transition plan. The curriculum will still be the high-quality curriculum that we use now. So we utilize Eureka for math, Wonders for K-5 ELA and Pearson MyPerspectives [for grades 6-12 ELA]. And then we adopted a new science curriculum that addresses the five E’s.

I think we have to spend a lot of time from an assessment perspective, having a true diagnostic that helps identify where kids are academically at that point of time, but also with those ongoing academic support from the RTI perspective. So we’ll spend a lot of our efforts around benchmark assessments and formative assessments to really capture that so we can close the gap, whether it’s with the curriculum or with individual intervention.

On the assessment front, have you all been looking into different and innovative ways to go about assessing students?

BURT: This year, with COVID in play, the state provided us a diagnostic, but it only focused on grades 4 and above, and it looked at the previous grade’s standards. So we created our own in-house, standards base. Also, universally in K-8, all students had to take the iReady diagnostic. So we wanted to really see where the key learning loss was in all of our kids, as opposed to previous years where we only did the kids who fell in the bottom 15%. 

Our own district diagnostic looked at what we call power standards — those standards that are heavily weighted based on end-of-year assessment [subjects] considered the major work of the grade. We created a diagnostic centered around those from the previous school year for all kids so we can know what standards that carry from one grade to the next our kids didn’t master. We’re building supports around a result from those prior to our formative assessments.

Having started the year remotely, what are some of the lessons learned during the spring when the transition to remote had to happen that you’ve applied to the fall so everything runs smoother?

BURT: One of the things we realized in the spring is we had to provide a lot of support for teachers as far as being able to deliver high-quality instruction in the virtual space. So, we mandated three required Microsoft Teams sessions and really got teaching grounded in how to utilize Microsoft Teams to deliver instruction.

We then have what we call “content cadres,” which are differentiated professional development pathways for teachers based on how they’re performing inside the classroom. Each teacher is required to have 40 PD hours, and 24 of those 40 PD hours are mandated Microsoft Teams sessions, which consist of eight targeted Microsoft Teams sessions that address all areas of the platform.

We put that on each path, but we also knew that not only did we have to provide that for teachers, we did intensive virtual learning PD for parents over the summer. We had a lot of parent seminars and a lot of parent virtual workshops to really show them how or what their second role as educator will consist of in a virtual space. That really went over well, and we’re seeing the fruits of that labor with a lot of kids not being disruptive during instruction, and being engaged in instruction.

Has that also helped to really reemphasize the importance of strong parent-teacher communication overall?

BURT: It definitely has. You know, when we were doing those virtual parent forums or sessions, a lot of parents were saying things like, “I don’t understand this form of content, I just know how I learned math.”

One of the major takeaways was, just hearing from the parents responses, they had a newfound respect of what a teacher goes through daily, right? From that March to May period, they realized [teachers] have to deal with so many different types of behavior issues and so many challenges as far as where kids are academically. So they really had a newfound respect for that.

To the point, I think a lot of parents are really pushing or would like to see their kids back in the building, brick-and-mortar.

With your background as a social studies and history teacher, given that this is an election year and also there being a lot more interest in civic engagement over the last several months as a result of many unfortunate events, what are some of the areas of focus for you when it comes to improving the kind of social studies and civics education students get?

BURT: That’s a major area of focus, and we’re going to try to tie in — we’re going to do some things this year where we want to do some writing around certain aspects of civic awareness and social justice issues.

We rolled out last year an African American male initiative that really focused on how do we help improve the plight of the African American male from a youth perspective. So we want to tie it in, but also center [civics education] around what’s going on in the country as a whole but also look at historical context — so kids can have a self-awareness from whence they came and also their role as civic-minded citizens to really benefit society, and what it looks like from a social justice perspective, while merging that into literacy concepts and standards.

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