And the winner is

Tennessee wins $2 million grant to boost career education

Tennessee has won a $2 million grant to strengthen career preparation for middle and high school students, state leaders announced Wednesday.

The grant is through the New Skills for Youth program, which is supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Nine other states also received funding for a total of $20 million in awards.

The funding will be distributed over three years with the goal of expanding career-focused education from middle school to beyond high school graduation.

Career preparation is a major focus in Tennessee. In 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam launched a Drive to 55 initiative with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

And in the State Department of Education’s draft plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials propose holding schools accountable for the number of career opportunities, like apprenticeships, that are available to students.

“Our work in K-12 education is to prepare students for success beyond our classrooms, and Tennessee is fully committed to strengthening postsecondary and workforce readiness for all students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release. “Funding from this grant will allow us to expand opportunities for students to access early postsecondary opportunities that can equip them for jobs and open doors for them as they graduate from high school, particularly in rural or economically distressed areas and in expanding industries.”

Part of the reason Tennessee’s grant application stood out was its focus on equity, said Chris Minnich, the council’s executive director. “One of the big things that we were looking for is that every child would have access (to these programs),” he said.

Minnich hopes the grant will elevate the prestige of career education. Historically, vocational and career education has been used to track students into separate groups, often based on race or socioeconomic status.

“Career technical education cannot be something left to a certain group of kids who are not going to college,” he said. “These grants are a step in that direction.”

Other states receiving grants are Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

Zeroing in

Vote approaches on closing two Memphis schools, while cost of Hopson’s plan grows

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dunbar Elementary School student Khamaria McElroy stands in line to speak to Shelby County's school board about why her school should stay open.

Memphis school leaders are moving forward with the first phase of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to reshape the district by closing, building and consolidating schools.

Board members for Shelby County Schools are scheduled Tuesday night to discuss Hopson’s proposal to shutter Dunbar and Carnes elementary schools, two of seven targeted in the latest recommended closures for the bloated district. A final vote is scheduled for Jan. 31.

In the meantime, the cost has grown for Hopson’s plan, which also calls for building new schools. And district leaders want some assurance that Shelby County commissioners are on board to approve the financing.

The estimated price tag is now $49 million to tear down five aging schools and consolidate students into two new ones — up from about $30 million when Hopson rolled out his plan in November. In a school system grappling with upkeep of aging buildings while its student population declines, that amount would consume about 65 percent of the district’s yearly ask for capital improvements.

Alcy Elementary School, which would absorb Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools, would cost about $25 million to replace. Goodlett Elementary School, which would absorb Knight Road Elementary, would cost about $24 million. Initially, Hopson had estimated $15 million each.

The third consolidation project, combining Lucy and Northaven into a new Woodstock K-12 school, won’t go before the board until next year.

Hopson hasn’t yet set a date to take his request to the commission but said last week that “all feedback I’ve gotten has been positive.” That aligns with commissioners’ initial reaction to Hopson’s plan last fall.

The school board’s scheduled vote next week will be the second and final one on closing Dunbar and Carnes.

Both elementary schools were built in the 1950s, both are costly to maintain, and both rank low on state tests. Carnes has seen a steady decline in enrollment, while Dunbar’s student population has been steady.

Closing the schools would save the district $1.2 million, according to staff reports on Dunbar and Carnes.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Budget cuts

Jeffco will propose plan to close schools to save money

Jeffco Public Schools is proposing school closures as part of a plan to save more than $20 million after the November defeat of the district’s two tax measures.

District staff is still finalizing the plan, which is to be presented Thursday to the school board, district spokeswoman Diana Wilson said. The district will wait until the meeting to release the names of schools being considered for closure, she said.

Wilson also emphasized that Thursday’s plan will be a draft proposal and requires school board approval.

The 86,000-student district has started 2017-18 budget discussions and expects a drop in student enrollment, which would mean less money from the state.

Wilson said district officials were initially looking to save $15 million to pay for raises for some teachers, since the board identified improving teacher compensation as a priority. Amy Weber, the district’s chief human resources officer, has told the board that for some teachers in the district, Jeffco’s pay is not competitive with neighboring districts, causing some teachers to leave.

But Wilson told Chalkbeat on Monday that plans changed after the November election.

“It’s now about what buildings can we afford to keep open,” Wilson said. “It’s a very different scenario.”

The district’s plan would save between $20 million and $25 million, she said.

Officials will also present the board with a plan for “cabinet recommendations” of other cuts that would be phased in over time to save $20.4 million.

As one way to gather input on budget priorities from the community, the district created a website where the people can try their hand at choosing their own combination of budget allocations working with a $6 million budget.

“Although the amount is hypothetical, it offers you an opportunity to weigh in on priorities,” the website states.

The site will be available through Feb. 10. The district will also hold telephone town hall meetings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 7.