School Choice

At school closings meetings, school choice groups learn the lay of the land in Memphis

A table set up at a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger act.

The school district auditorium in midtown Memphis was crowded Tuesday night, as the Shelby County school board’s debate over which schools to close before the 2014-15 school year reached its culmination. For many of the students, parents, alumni, teachers, community members, and media present, this was the last in a series of community meetings about the closings over the past two months.

Near the section of room marked for district officials, under a sign that read “Remember, it’s all about our students,” sat some another group of people who had been to almost as many meetings as anyone in the room: Field organizers for StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution, two school choice advocacy groups.

Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended nearly every meeting. Parent Revolution, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), StudentsFirst, and Stand For Children were among the groups that attended the meetings.

The 140,000-student Shelby County Schools plans to close ten schools next year as part of an effort to “right-size” the district. District officials considered closing as many as 13 schools, citing declining enrollment, deteriorating facilities, and low academic performance. Some forms of school choice in Shelby County, including the growing charter school sector and the new state-run school district, have contributed to declining enrollment in some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

The school closings meetings drew passionate crowds of Memphians, many of whom are not currently affiliated with any of the advocacy groups. Many of the protesters are connected to schools ranked in the bottom five or 10 percent in the state – the same group of schools targeted by the vouchers and  within the group targeted by the parent trigger law, which would include the bottom 20 percent of schools.

Not every group was present at every meeting. But organizers said the meetings allowed them to understand the issues affecting Memphis parents and schools.

“Being new to Memphis, we have a lot of ground to cover,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, the state director for BAEO. “It’s been important that we’re listening, that we’re attending events that are important to parents. If a school is closing and there’s an opportunity to convert it to a charter school, we want them to understand what that means and what that looks like.”

Mario King, a field coordinator for StudentsFirst in Shelby County, attended several closings meetings, including Tuesday night’s vote.

“We’re always searching for new outreach – but we don’t want to capitalize or engage in anything that comes out of anything that could be negative,” said StudentsFirst’s King. “We don’t search for new members at meetings like that. We ask, how can we step in and be effective and make this better.”

But, he said, “It gave me an opportunity to meet the superintendent, to have one-on-one conversation with parents about school choice and parent empowerment and so on. I was able to really capitalize on the school meetings by meeting those parents,” he said.

Those focused on the closings had mixed feelings about the groups’ presence. “I’ve met them,” said Katrina Thompson, who helped organize the efforts to remove Northside from the closings list, of Parent Revolution. “There are some parts of what they’re talking about that I’m not in agreement with. I think parents should be involved, but as an educator, I know parents don’t have enough information about education of children because that’s not their background. ”

“Most of people don’t even know that they’re there,” Thompson said. “But I’m sure sure he’ll be reaching out now that Northside’s staying open.”

After last night’s closing meeting, Bridget Bradley, the president of the PTO at Westhaven Elementary School, said that she was approached by a StudentsFirst representative, but she was so distraught about the district’s plan to close her school that “I really couldn’t talk right then.”

Each of the advocacy groups has its own set of priorities, but several are promoting changes that could reshape the educational landscape in Tennessee.

Parent Revolution is focused on a new parent trigger bill, which would reduce the number of parents who must sign a petition to convert a public school into a charter or to use that threat as leverage to encourage the district to improve the school if they’ve gained a critical mass of students. Tennessee already has a parent trigger law, but it requires more than 60 percent of parents in a school to sign on.

StudentsFirst is supporting the new parent trigger bill and a new school voucher bill as part of its a slate of priorities. BAEO also supports vouchers and the trigger bill change.The Tennessee Federation for Children, which promotes school vouchers, even shared a meeting space with a school closings protest earlier this month. Stand For Children is currently promoting just the Common Core State Standards and is agnostic on those school choice laws.

StudentsFirst has 35,000 members in Tennessee, according to Calvin Harris, a spokesman for the group. The group does not have a current estimate of how many of those members are in Memphis.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) opened its Tennessee chapter in January. “Tennessee is the next mecca for education reform,” said Littlejohn. “We support school choice in Tennessee and want to empower black families around school choice.”

BAEO also supported a school choice rally last week, which used a program that allowed participants to send an email to their legislator supporting school choice via text message. Littlejohn said the group was too new to have an official tally of members.

Parent Revolution also arrived in Memphis in January.

Marydee Moran, the regional campaigns director for Parent Revolution, said that she thought the parent trigger law could fill a gap in the education reform movement here. “There’s still a sort of top-down drive to reforms and things that are happening to the community, rather than ground-up,” she said. She said Parent Revolution’s goal was to train parents and enable them to have more control over the changes to schools in their community. The group has just 15 or so members so far, but has been canvassing and hopes to recruit more parents.

At a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger law hosted by Parent Revolution, a small but engaged crowd questioned StudentsFirst representatives, a BAEO field organizer, state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, and one of the parents who promoted the original parent trigger bill in California. In the crowd were Northside and Westhaven community members, who heard about the screening at the closings meetings.

Bradley, the Westhaven PTO president, asked Deberry if the trigger bill would help keep Westhaven open it is current form. “I don’t want a charter,” she said. She said after the meeting that she had decided she couldn’t support the parent empowerment bill.

Stand For Children, which has been in Memphis since 2005, recently reorganized and is currently focusing on promoting the Common Core State Standards rather than actively promoting the voucher law or parent trigger; the group just hired a new executive director and a new Memphis director, Cardell Orrin. “We’re just monitoring,” Orrin said. Orrin said that since Stand For Children is in transition, “we didn’t want to come in and get halfway involved.”

Stand For Children’s Orrin noted how many parents and community members had organized themselves around the school closings. “They’ve done it on their own,” he said. “We need to see if they want training, if they want to move forward after this issue – how do we support them and that community.

At a rally at Cane Creek Baptist Church earlier this month, Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation of Children, spoke to a thinning crowd who had just listened to superintendent Dorsey Hopson defend the need to close schools and a parent leading a protest against the closures. Representatives from StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution were in the audience for his presentation, though most of the protesters left before Benjamin’s presentation.

Benjamin asked the thinning crowd to support a voucher bill, which did not pass last year. “They said Memphis didn’t support vouchers,” he said. “They said black folks didn’t support vouchers. No matter what our differences are, we have to come together on the kid issue. The only thing we need to focus on is not private, public, charter – it’s are we giving more opportunities to parents to put kids in best environment possible.” He asked the audience members to send a text message that would automate an email to a congressperson.

Superintendent Hopson, when asked about the connection to the school choice event and his speech on the closings, said, “No, no, I’m not part of that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the advocacy group Parent Revolution as Parent Empowerment. The bill the group is lobbying for is the Parent Empowerment Act.

Clarification: Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended the majority of the school closings meetings; not every group was at every meeting.

two hats

Denver Public Schools’ glaring conflict: both authorizing and operating schools

Students at Greenlee Elementary School in northeast Denver last month (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

Right after school let out, a line formed outside the second-floor staff room at Greenlee Elementary School in Denver. Teachers, staff, janitors and union representatives all crammed into the space to learn the fate of a school that had been on the ropes academically for years.

Denver Public Schools officials delivered the blow: The school would likely close after 2017-18 and be “restarted” with a new program.

What happened next at the meeting last fall epitomizes the challenges facing the state’s largest school district as it juggles two conflicting roles.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, whose mother attended Greenlee and who still has family in the neighborhood, got emotional as she told the room that district officials shared responsibility in Greenlee’s situation. Cordova pledged to support Principal Sheldon Reynolds’ application to run a replacement program at Greenlee, building on recent gains there.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, also in the room, made clear that the competition to replace Greenlee would be open, and that he would play no favorites. It will be Boasberg’s job to recommend to the school board next month which applicants should run new programs at Greenlee and another DPS school being closed for poor performance: Amesse Elementary.

“That meeting was a great encapsulation of what it’s like — especially for me, but also for Susana — to be very explicit that we do wear two hats,” Boasberg told Chalkbeat. “It was a very important and challenging conversation.”

Those two hats are school authorizer and school operator. DPS says it has a “firewall” separating those who help run and support district-managed schools, and those who approve schools that make up the district’s nationally recognized “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, innovation and magnet schools.

Managing that separation can be complicated, messy and — this year — tension-filled.

Slower enrollment growth, scant opportunities to locate in a district-owned building, more high-quality district-run proposals and other factors have contributed to a contentious process.

In a district that has long supported charter schools, it is charter schools that are leading the criticism. Even after DPS took extra steps this year to address the operator/authorizer conflict, charter operators are saying the restart competitions have not been fair.

Such tensions are not uncommon in school districts, especially at those with significant charter school growth, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group at the University of Washington.

Bias may not be intentional — especially in districts like Denver committed to different governing structures — but it can be damaging to promoting great schools without labels, she said.

“There can be an internal schizophrenia in the main office about what its core job is,” Lake said.

Tensions are running highest in DPS over the competition for the Amesse restart in northeast Denver.

All three applicants are considered strong: local college-prep charter networks STRIVE Prep and University Prep, and a proposed district-run partnership between nearby McGlone Academy and existing Amesse staff called the Montbello Children’s Network.

University Prep remains an applicant but is no longer in the running after a DPS review found that its plans did not meet the requirements of a court order dictating how English language learners must be educated.

Before that development, University Prep CEO David Singer in an interview with Chalkbeat voiced concerns about how DPS is navigating the operator/authorizer conflict.

“There needs to be a level playing field where families can engage in a process that is not biased in one direction or another,” Singer said. “The process doesn’t feel like it’s in the right place yet.”

STRIVE was more pointed — and specific. Dani Morello, STRIVE’s outreach and engagement manager in far northeast Denver, said in written testimony at a school board meeting last month that the district being “both an authorizer and a restart competitor has been challenging and confusing.”

She said a lack of clear messaging has “led to the narrative within the school community that this process is a choice between applicants looking to change the school and those looking to keep it the same — which we find confusing and misrepresentative of all applicants.”

Morello also cited “differential access” to families and staff — including lists of family contact information made available to the district applicant long before the charter applicants.

STRIVE sees the conflict most evident in the decision to allow DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement “to directly organize for the district applicant,” Morello said.

“While we believe this effort is well-intentioned, it has the consequence of parents experiencing messages from district staff in an official capacity speaking about only one applicant, which has exacerbated confusion among families,” she said.

Both district officials and Sara Gips Goodall, principal of McGlone and proposed leader of the Montbello Children’s Network, disputed the STRIVE criticisms.

Goodall said that DPS is not spearheading her school’s application, and that she is “100 percent sure that no parents have experienced a single message from district staff in an official capacity speaking about one applicant.”

Goodall said her team did community outreach early on to gauge interest and incorporate community input into its plan. She said STRIVE, which has been seeking to build support to open a school in the neighborhood for the past couple of years, has been targeting parents aggressively.

“This is also what makes me sad: I actually view University Prep and STRIVE as some of our partners,” Goodall said. “One reason I moved back to Denver (to help lead McGlone in turnaround efforts) is because I loved the idea that charter-public was a collaboration and not competition.”

Charter schools have “huge” advantages as school applicants, Goodall said, including network staff who have experience navigating the process.

“I’m writing those plans on the weekend at a coffee shop,” she said.

Chris Gibbons, CEO of STRIVE, said the school board testimony had nothing to do with McGlone, and that STRIVE’s concerns rest with the district’s management process.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Parents pick up their children at Amesse Elementary, one of two schools that will be restarted.

“I would want Sara to know that and anyone to know that,” Gibbons said. “The critique of the process is that charter applicants did not have access to information until (their letters of intent to apply) had been received” by DPS, while the district-run applicant had access earlier.

Boasberg also took issue with some of STRIVE’s claims. He said all Amesse applicants got the same list of family contact information at the same time.

“It is true that one of the applicants did begin to organize and do efforts in the Amesse community earlier,” he said. “But there is nothing that prohibits hard work here.”

Boasberg said DPS’s Office of Family and Community Engagement, or FACE, had “absolutely nothing” to do with the running the process. DPS created a public affairs team in the superintendent’s office this year to communicate with school communities, taking FACE, which has deep relationships with families in schools, out of that process.

Said Cordova: “The whole idea was to not have a process that seems like it’s rigged.”

Gibbons said that STRIVE in its testimony was making reference to district assistance in the early organizing. Boasberg acknowledged that FACE supported McGlone to some extent, including providing examples of engagement and helping with meeting setup.

Overall, Boasberg said DPS has worked diligently to build a wall separating school authorizing — overseen by Jennifer Holladay, executive director of DPS’s portfolio management team — and the school operating role led by Cordova, the deputy superintendent.

DPS also has developed policies meant to bring more clarity — and less politics — to decision-making. In the last two years, DPS has laid out specific criteria for closing schools and for awarding district buildings to schools.

“This is not a new conflict,” Boasberg said. “It’s been with us for some time. I do think we in Denver have been more thoughtful and more proactive than any other district in the country.”

DPS this year formed Community Review Boards for both restarts that will weigh applicants against the district’s building allocation criteria and make recommendations to Boasberg. The boards include parent members, community members, professional reviewers and facilitators.

Boasberg underscored how important that new step will be: “I am going to greatly respect the Community Review Board’s recommendation in making my recommendation,” he said.

How Denver navigates the operator/authorizer conflict bears watching, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Legitimate questions can be raised about whether a school district can be even-handed in a competition where it is both a player and referee,” West said. “It wouldn’t necessarily require intentionality to create situations where the district-managed school has a big advantage.”

PHOTO: Greenlee
Students at Greenlee Elementary

The competition for restarting Greenlee Elementary is not nearly as heated as the one at Amesse.

The only charter school to apply was Wyoming-based PODER Academy, and DPS staff this week said its application did not meet the district’s quality standards. The school leader strongly objected to the recommendation that it not be approved.

The restart is all but certain to go to a team led by current Greenlee principal Reynolds, who is proposing a new program called the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee Elementary.

Reynolds’ application promises challenging standards-based instruction, a rich roster of electives and a teacher development pipeline through the University of Colorado Denver.

As Reynolds has emphasized to those doubting whether he should stay at the helm, he is just completing his second year at Greenlee and has seen some positive academic growth after adopting a plan celebrating student accomplishments and strengthening school culture.

Reynolds said he believes the district has approached the process appropriately.

“I’ve definitely had district support, but it’s also been very clear there is a separation between that and them being fair and equitable in the process,” he said.

DPS has been encouraging such entrepreneurial leadership in-house, including replicating successful district-run models in new locations. That deeper pool of district-sponsored applicants is likely a contributing factor to some of the tensions.

Boasberg said he was surprised no local charter network applied for the Greenlee restart, and acknowledged that a perception that Reynolds would prevail likely played a role.

Reflecting on that emotional meeting in the Greenlee Elementary staff room, Cordova said she knows firsthand what happens to communities when things don’t work out. She was part of the team that devised a previous turnaround plan at Greenlee that didn’t succeed.

Cordova emphasized that her primary responsibility as deputy superintendent is to “support and lead our reform efforts in our district-managed schools.”

A few school districts have either relinquished the school operator role or are moving in that direction. Although Denver has experimented with different governance structures — including giving district-run schools more autonomy in a budding “innovation zone” — that is not in the district’s future.

Boasberg said DPS can wear both its operator and authorizer hats.

“It’s absolutely imperative,” he said, “that we do both jobs very well.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.