Interest high in Jeffco facilities choices

People who worry about parent and citizen involvement in schools might be heartened by what’s happened in Jefferson County over the last few weeks.

Four public meetings on a complicated set of school closure and pupil reassignment options drew about 3,500 people, and Jeffco Schools officials estimate they’re received more than 1,000 e-mails and had more than 500 online surveys filled out. They also received about 50 old-fashion letters.

Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, who attended Jeffco schools and has been in administrative positions there since 1985, said, “I haven’t seen this kind of turnout in a long time.”

Part of the crowd attending a Jeffco facilities meeting at Summit Ridge Middle School on Nov. 16, 2009.
Part of the crowd attending a Jeffco facilities meeting at Summit Ridge Middle School on Nov. 16, 2009.

The focus of all this parent and citizen attention is a complicated set of options for school closures and realignments that’s been prepared by a 30-member Facilities Usage Committee that was created by the school board last spring.

Facing stable enrollment and population shifts in some neighborhoods, and feeling the cold breath of future state budget cuts on its neck, the district wanted to see what sort of savings it could wring out of its buildings.

Given the sort of community anxiety that can be sparked by even mentioning school closures, the tone of the public meetings and other feedback has been civil and informed. Options that drew the largest amount of comment were moving 6th graders to middle schools and closing some middle schools.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Stevenson, recalling past public meetings on other issues that had “lots of conflict.”

“I’m really proud of our county … people were very respectful and thoughtful.”

Phillip Infelise, co-chair of the committee, said, “I thought the turnout was absolutely fantastic. [It’s] a very positive sign that the folks are taking the committee’s work seriously.”

Good feelings notwithstanding, the time for tough choices is approaching quickly.

Jeffco supt. Cindy Stevenson
Jeffco supt. Cindy Stevenson

“People are really committed to their schools … but there are hard decisions ahead,” Stevenson said.

The full committee meets next on Nov. 30 to begin narrowing the list of options it will present to the school board on Jan. 14. Both Stevenson and Infelise expect the current set of options – up to 45, depending on how you classify them – to be narrowed to between 10 and 15. (Several options have multiple variations.)

“That’s what we’re going to try to do, to get our committee to focus on 12-15 options” that are most viable, more cost effective and least disruptive, Infelise said.

He told EdNews that committee leadership already has decided to pull from consideration options whose savings payback is longer than four years. (Those 10 options included moving some preschool and gifted and talented programs, a couple of plans to partner elementary schools and a $13.8 million proposal to close Stober and Vivian elementary schools in Wheat Ridge and move students to a new building on the Vivian site.)

Infelise said the message to committee members is that during the Nov. 30 meeting “we’re going to relook at every option on the list.”

Referring back to the public hearings, Infelise said, “People do realize that something has to give from a budget perspective, but we cannot be insensitive to the fact that people are making a case against some of the committee’s recommendations.” He said it might take another meeting in December to finish winnowing the options.

Reflecting on the public hearings, Infelise said moving 6th graders to middle school “would be on the top of my list as one of the more controversial issues.” But, he added, “The public may not realize there are already good, viable examples of 6th graders being in middle school.” (Middle schools in Jeffco’s western, mountain areas have 6th graders.)

But, both Stevenson and Infelise acknowledged that parents raised a legitimate concern about moving 6th graders in the 2010-11 school year and that the timing issue will need to be considered before final decisions are made.

There clearly are two sides to the middle school issue, as demonstrated during the hearings. Some witnesses urged moving 6th graders as a way to “save” middle schools otherwise suggested for closure.

The school board and the district face a tight timeline if they want to realize building savings in the 2010-11 budget. If the board decides to close schools, it will have to act quickly after receiving the committee’s recommendations, Infelise noted. “In some cases we will have to move on some of these recommendations quicker than the public might like.”

Phillip Infelise, cochair of 2009 Jeffco facilities committee
Phillip Infelise, cochair of 2009 Jeffco facilities committee

The timeline also will be tight for parents who may want to avoid forced moves by putting their children into choice schools or programs. The deadline for first-round choice applications is in late January, before the board may have taken final action. That’s “a circumstance we can’t avoid,” Infelise said.

The committee plans to give the board a “menu” of facilities options, not one take-it-or-leave it recommendation. There’s also no firm figure for what the district wants to save in facilities. Rather, possible facilities savings will be considered as part of overall district budget cutting for 2010-11. Stevenson said right now Jeffco is planning to cut $18 to $20 million plus use $30 million from reserves.

The final decision will be in the hands of a five-member school board that has two brand-new members, Paula Noon and Laura Boggs; a third member who’s been in office for only a few months, Robin Johnson, and a new president, Dave Thomas.

The facilities discussion is something of a new experience for Jeffco, which for decades had to cope with growth. “I don’t think we’ve ever done this,” said Stevenson. In the past “we were worried about having space for everybody.” (In earlier years that problem was solved partly by extensive use of portable classrooms. Getting rid of some or all of those is among the options under consideration.)

The district, the state’s largest, has enrollment of about 84,000, down from nearly 90,000 at the start of the decade. (It had about 75,000 students at the beginning of the 1990s.) The student population is projected to remain flat for several years and then rise slightly through 2020-21.

There are 94 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, 17 high schools and 35 other facilities, including 13 charters, in the district. According to district documents, average capacity use is 91 percent for elementaries, 72 percent for middle schools and 88 percent for high schools, but that varies widely for individual schools.

District projections for enrollment trends show 19 schools stable, 72 schools declining and 40 schools growing.

Do your homework

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.