year in review

Five stories that shaped Memphis public schools in 2016

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
School closure public meeting at Carnes Elementary School.

Memphis is not only home to Tennessee’s largest public school district. It’s also a national hub for school improvement efforts supported by local, state, federal and philanthropic initiatives. Here are some of the city’s biggest education storylines for 2016:

Shelby County Schools began to ‘right-size’ its footprint by systematically closing and consolidating schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frisli Hernandez, a student from Charjean Elementary School, speaks at a December school board meeting where school leaders considered several consolidation projects.

Shelby County Schools had 22,000 empty seats in aging school buildings this year, meaning the limited resources of the cash-strapped school system were spread thin. While Memphis leaders have closed schools annually in recent years, 2016 saw the launch of the first systematic process for addressing the district’s under-enrollment challenges. The action was spurred by a comprehensive footprint analysis ordered by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 to guide school closures for the next five years. Hopson’s goal is to align the numbers of students and seats, while also boosting academic and programmatic quality. He estimates the district will need to close up to 18 schools. In his first round of recommendations, Hopson is seeking to consolidate five schools into three new buildings and close two more outright. The final vote on that proposal is scheduled for early next year.

The state-run Achievement School District took a one-year pause in school takeovers, while its lineup of charter networks began to change.

Citing the transition to Tennessee’s new TNReady test, ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a “hold harmless” year, freezing the school turnaround district at 31 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville. The pause allowed the ASD to put more focus on supports for its portfolio of charter networks, which have struggled with operational issues ranging from facilities to enrollment. But ongoing efforts to bolster enrollment were not enough for two charter operators. Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced in October plans to pull out of both of its ASD schools in North Memphis, leaving the future of those schools uncertain. Then this week, the Memphis board for KIPP voted to exit and close one of its four ASD schools. With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. But that expansion may be slowed under a new education plan proposed by the State Department of Education.

Enrollment wars heated up.

Shelby County Schools’ enrollment has dropped drastically since the state-run district began its annual expansion in 2012, and six suburban municipalities broke off to form their own school systems in 2014. After years of watching the drain of students — and the funding they bring — Shelby County school leaders finally

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School re-opens under the state-run Achievement School District.

had enough. This spring, the district went on the offense and rezoned parts of schools slated to shift to the ASD. Leaders also actively sought to retain students through tactics that ASD officials said amounted to misinformation and withholding of enrollment information.

But collaboration became an emerging priority for Shelby County Schools and its growing charter sector.

Memphis has more charter schools than any city in Tennessee, and charter leaders long have griped that Shelby County Schools could do more to support operators of charters authorized by the local school board. In January, both groups committed to working through turf battles. The resulting committee has begun to shape policy around funding, facilities and accountability. But that work didn’t come soon enough. The State Board of Education rapped Shelby County Schools for its lack of process after the school board’s hastened revocation of three charters this spring led to appeals — the first of their kind in Tennessee.

The local district managed to close its funding gap — for now.

With enrollment and funding down and the last of a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drying up, Shelby County Schools started out the year facing an $86 million deficit. Leaders managed to close that gap little by little, culminating with a significant $22 million boost from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners only days before the new fiscal year. The extra money came during an especially high-stakes year and helped the district give its teachers a 3 percent raise. For next year, district leaders are moving up their annual budget timeline to address deficits sooner and get more community input. The public’s first look at a proposed budget is expected in January.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”