Roll call!

Tennessee’s largest school district has good news and bad news on enrollment

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students attend class at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a 324-student optional school that is over capacity in Memphis.

Three months into the school year, enrollment at Shelby County Schools is higher than projected but still on the decline.

The number of students attending Tennessee’s largest school system reached 105,299 last week, down from 109,000 last school year, but still up from the district’s projected enrollment of about 104,000, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

The numbers include more than 13,300 students at 45 district-authorized charter schools, which enrolled a record-setting 12 percent of the student population.

Enrollment determines the amount of per-pupil funding the district receives from local, state and federal governments. It also impacts hiring. Shelby County Schools now has 50 teaching positions left to fill, down from 100 at the beginning of the school year, Tallent said.

Much of the district’s enrollment decline is due to the state’s takeover this summer of four more schools: Kirby Middle, Raleigh-Egypt Middle, Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary and Hillcrest High. All four were on the state’s priority list of low-performing schools and reopened this school year under the management of charter school operators through Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or ASD.

Shelby County Schools has sought to stem the drain more aggressively in the last year by reconfiguring grades, rezoning schools and recruiting students away from ASD schools.

heated discussion

Northfield High School parents, students sound off against sharing campus with charter school

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night.

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Parents interrupted the superintendent to accuse Denver Public Schools of breaking its promises to Northfield High, the city’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Students made impassioned pleas against a plan to co-locate a high-performing charter school there. And a mother of two middle schoolers at that charter school, DSST: Conservatory Green, choked up.

“Where would you put our children?” Lechelle Schilz asked. “I hear a lot of hatred.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg tried to assuage their fears, diffuse the tension and debunk the perception that the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver was ever meant to belong solely to Northfield High. It was always intended to house multiple schools sharing athletic fields and common areas, a strategy the district uses all over the city to keep costs low, he said.

“Can we have a successful, comprehensive Northfield High School with a top-flight (International Baccalaureate) program and can we have a successful Conservatory Green High School sharing the same campus? I believe the answer is absolutely,” he said at the three-hour meeting. “We can do both. And one does not take away from the other.”

But many parents and students left the meeting unconvinced.

“I feel betrayed,” said Northfield High sophomore Devante Tanguy.

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 15 on a plan that calls for using funds from the $572 million bond issue approved by voters last month to build a new, 500-seat high school building on the campus. It would be occupied by DSST: Conservatory Green High School, another link in the district’s biggest charter chain and a continuation of the nearby DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School. That building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018.

The plan also includes:

— Temporarily placing a new elementary school, Inspire Elementary, at the Paul Sandoval Campus for the 2017-18 school year until construction is complete on a new building in the booming Stapleton neighborhood. Inspire would initially serve kindergarten through 2nd grade.

— Temporarily placing DSST: Conservatory Green High School at the nearby Samsonite Campus for 2017-18 until the new building is ready on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

— Monitoring enrollment at Northfield High, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders with plans to add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. If additional capacity is needed for the fall of 2019 or 2020, the district would borrow money to add more seats.

— Begin planning to fully build out Northfield High with funds raised through a bond issue anticipated to go before voters in 2020. The district is planning to add 1,000 additional seats to the Paul Sandoval Campus with 2020 bond money, 500 of which would be for Northfield High. The other 500 seats would be for a new, yet-to-be-determined middle school.

Boasberg reiterated the district remains committed to Northfield High’s vision of comprehensive high school serving a diverse population that offers all kids the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Last year, the student body was split evenly between white students, black students and Latino students. Half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The district predicts that Northfield High will eventually serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students, putting its enrollment on par with comprehensive Denver high schools such as George Washington and South but remaining smaller than 2,500-student East High.

This year, Northfield has 415 students in grades nine and 10. Seventy percent of students who live within the high school’s boundary — and are thus guaranteed a seat — choose to go elsewhere, which is on the high end for the district’s comprehensive high schools. Sixty-two percent of Northfield students are from outside the boundary.

Parents credit Northfield’s relatively low enrollment to the school’s tumultuous start. Its first principal resigned rather than be fired in October 2015, two months after the school opened, following an investigation into inappropriate responses involving student discipline.

The school had an interim principal last year. Amy Bringedahl, a longtime educator who served as principal of a DPS middle school last year, was chosen to helm Northfield this year.

Parents and students Monday night said they felt repeatedly hoodwinked by the district, which they complained wasn’t investing in Northfield High like it should.

“We wanted a comprehensive high school, a school that had a wide range of options,” said a Northfield High sophomore who took a turn at the microphone. “We were promised additional buildings so we could grow our school into the best school.

“Before you open up something new, why don’t you build what you already started?” he continued. “I question DPS’s commitment to our school. I pose it as an open question to DPS tonight: Do you support our school? Because you’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.”

Boasberg insisted the district does. But he said it doesn’t make sense to build out the school to 1,500 seats now if it won’t need that many for several more years. When parents pushed back, saying they were under the impression the 2016 bond would pay to complete Northfield High, Boasberg said they were mistaken.

The bond proposal stated the money would pay for 500 additional seats on the Paul Sandoval Campus, he said: “It doesn’t say ‘Northfield High School.’ It never said ‘Northfield High School.’”

One woman in the audience shouted back.

“I didn’t vote for the bond because I knew you were going to do this,” she said angrily.

Many DSST parents and staff members attended the meeting, as well. They expressed dismay at the attitude of the Northfield High supporters and said sharing a campus, which DSST does at several of its locations, is a great way to teach children the value of cooperation.

“I think there is a way to have a vital Northfield High School and a way to have a vital and exciting DSST: Conservatory Green High School,” said a father of two DSST middle school students. “Is it perfect? No. My dream would be that they’d each have their own campus. But there’s something innovative and exciting to me and we are in support.”

At the end of the meeting, some Northfield parents said the proposal felt like “a done deal.”

“I think our community is being held hostage by DPS until the 2020 bond,” said Amy Passas, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Even though she lives close to Northfield and is considering sending her 8th grader there next year, she said she’s also considering East High.

shift

Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.