ASD

ASD leader’s comments bring attention to relationship between charters and school segregation

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students settle in to lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary School, a charter school operated in Memphis through the state's Achievement School District. A bill in the Tennessee legislature would allow schools such as Aspire to enroll students from outside of their residential zones.

After Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District, was criticized for commenting earlier this week that charter schools are not solely responsible for racial segregation in public schools, ASD officials said that the lack of diversity within its own charter schools is due to historic housing and school zoning trends and the unique restrictions placed on the ASD in state law.

“The schools we’re inheriting that have been in these systems for a long time – they’re already racially segregated schools. They’re schools where one in 10 kids reads on grade level,” Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD, which is tasked with improving the state’s worst schools, said on Friday.

“We absolutely believe segregation is an issue…but it’s unfair to suggest that it’s all on charter schools. It’s on communities, it’s on schools, it’s on everyone,” he said.

The state-run district is required by the First to the Top law to serve only students who are zoned to schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state. “It’s clear what our charge is – it’s to serve the kids who are zoned to our schools, to serve our neighborhoods,” Smalley said. Charter school advocates in Tennessee are petitioning for students who are not zoned to priority schools to also be able to attend ASD schools.

Acceptable separation?

Barbic landed in hot water earlier this week after an event at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, highlighting disputes in Tennessee and nationwide about which students charter schools should serve. News outlets reported that the state official had said that some level of segregation in charter schools was “acceptable.”

House Democrats denounced Barbic’s comments: “Only one day after the nation paused to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is disturbing to hear the head of our Achievement School District downplay the role of diversity in a well-rounded education,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh in a press release. “Too many people have fought too hard to bring about an integrated, well balanced school system for comments like this to move us towards resegregation.”

Nashville Public Radio later clarified that Barbic himself had not said that segregation in the schools is acceptable, but the comments are still causing ripples: Representatives from the state’s Black Caucus said the comments were troublesome on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for state representative Larry Miller, a Democrat from Memphis and a member of the black caucus, said that representatives are planning to arrange a meeting with Barbic and would not issue an official statement on the comments until after that meeting.

Smalley said that while Barbic was open to discussing the issue further, no meetings had been arranged.

Barbic’s remarks, as reported by Nashville Public Radio, follow:

“I mean, absolutely diversity is important. But the fact is schools reflect the neighborhood. Nashville is not a diverse city. This idea of living in these mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods across the city is a great goal. It’s not reality. To talk about charters as segregating the population, like Art (Fuller, head of Knowledge Academy in the old Hickory Hollow mall) said, charters are representations of the community.

“So I think you’ve got to be about quality. Yes we want diversity but I just think we got to be honest about the situation and speak honestly about race and class, which goes way beyond the power of a school and not start to throw charters into a place where really they’re not responsible for the neighborhood demographic patterns of Nashville over the last 100 years.”

Who should charter schools serve?

The state-run district oversees a number of charter schools, which take over priority schools and are charged with dramatically improving their performance. Unlike other charter schools, which can run lotteries or take application, ASD schools are required to enroll only students who are zoned to priority schools, including any student who was zoned to the school before it was taken over over.

Those students are overwhelmingly African-American and poor: Some 96 percent of the state-run district’s 2,000 students were African-American in the 2012-13 school year year, according to the state’s report card. That same year, Memphis City Schools’ student population was about 81 percent African-American, and Davidson County Schools, which includes Nashville, was about 45 percent African-American.

Smalley said that while approximately 24 percent of students in the state of Tennessee are African-American, 92 percent of students in priority schools eligible for the ASD are African-American.

Outside the ASD, in Tennessee, charter schools were limited to serving at-risk students until 2011. That restriction has since been lifted, but most charter schools in the state still aim to serve that group. A charter school aimed at middle class students in Nashville drew fire last year for targeting middle-class students, prompting conversations about diversity in that city’s schools.

When asked if he thought there was a benefit to having schools that serve entirely high-needs populations, Smalley said, “there is benefit in clarity around mission. I think there’s benefit in a belief in high expectations for all kids, regardless of race or background.”

“The thing we can 100 percent control right now, and the most urgent need, is the quality of education we are providing,” Smalley said.

In 2010, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles released a report called “Choice Without Equity” that showed that charter schools are often more segregated by race than regular public schools. Many charter schools specifically target students from failing schools, who are often minorities and often from low-income families.

But a 2012 report from the same group indicates that segregation in regular public schools has also been increasing, especially in the south.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, has studied charter school diversity and is publishing an upcoming book with coauthor Halley Potter on the topic. He told Education Week in 2012 that “the charter school community is recognizing that to the extent that it’s seen as segregated, that’s a negative thing.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.