The big sort

No more back-door admissions to Detroit’s most selective high schools after all students take screening exam

The Detroit school district changed its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Dramatic changes to the way Detroit’s main district decides who can get into its most selective schools meant more students were accepted from district middle schools — and no student got in without taking the entrance exam.

Those were only some of the effects of the controversial changes the district made to the exam and application process for students who want to attend Cass Technical, Renaissance, Martin Luther King Jr., and Southeastern high schools.

In Detroit, attending these schools is prestigious, giving students bragging rights to be among the ranks of celebrity alumni such as rapper Big Sean, singer Diana Ross, reality television star Kenya Moore, and former NFL player Lawrence Thomas. Admission, which requires both an exam and an application, is competitive: Among the top high schools in the state, they are sought after by eighth-graders from around the region, not just from the city.

Last year, amid patchy test-taking and an opaque selection process, just 1,607 students were offered seats at the schools through the regular application process. Only 46 percent came from district middle schools, and almost 500 additional students who had not taken the test were later offered a seat by appealing directly to the schools. (Another 179 students who took the exam also got in on appeal.)

“Often, relationships were a determining factor in admissions, not the attributes of the applicants and what they could add to the student body,” said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.

This year, in a bid to increase equity and give an edge to students in district middle schools, every eighth-grader in Detroit’s main district took the test and applications were scored consistently.

As a result, the schools admitted 2,858 students after the exam, filling every spot and sharply curtailing the number of students who can get in by appeal. Nearly two-thirds of the admitted students attended district middle schools.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was pleased by the fact that all eighth-graders took the screening exam.

“One commitment we made this year was to ensure the testing of eighth-graders would happen across our district,” he said at a meeting last week. “This was about equity and access throughout our district.”

He also said efforts to improve the system would continue.

“I don’t think we’re at a point of perfection,” Vitti said. “At least we’re beginning to create structure and consistency, and we have data to track over time where the random process made it difficult to analyze.“

A consistent method for screening applications was a centerpiece of the changes. In previous years, there were no clear-cut rules for scoring applications and each school evaluated students independently.

This year, starting in March, a single team of teachers, staff, alumni, and administrators evaluated each application according to a points system.

Students could earn up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school admissions exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay, and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district also received 10 bonus points that gave them an edge over students applying from charter, parochial, and suburban schools.

The district enacted a minimum score, known as a cut score, that students had to reach to be admitted into all examination schools. In addition, because of high student demand, each school had its own cut score that exceeded the district score. About 44 percent of applicants did not meet the cut score for any school.

“By determining a cut score, the caliber of students entering the examination high schools increases,” Wilson said. “There were reports of previous years where students were admitted who were struggling with their grades, and had very low proficiency levels in the academic core.”

Not everyone was happy with how the students were selected.

Terri Berry is a Cass graduate and supporter whose daughter will be a freshman there this year. She said she’s still concerned about equity in the process.

“My concern is to make it fair for all the students who want to attend those schools,” said Berry, an officer in the Triangle Society, a Cass booster group that has objected to the changes.

Detroiter Seydi Sarr said her daughter, Hawlaane Sarr-Robins, very much hoped to attend Renaissance and anxiously took the exam last spring.

Sarr didn’t know the district was only giving bonus points to district students. Her eighth-grader at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School — a charter school — was disappointed when she heard she was put on a waitlist, her mother said.

Vitti said about 85 percent of students applying for the district’s exam schools are from Detroit.

“It’s important to note that despite students gaining entrance from outside the district, the vast majority of those students are from Detroit,” Vitti said. “We should be excited about the fact that non-[district] students are applying for our exam schools.”

The fact that the new process penalizes non-district students is a problem, said Rob Kimball, who heads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, Detroit’s largest charter authorizer.

“All public schools in Detroit should welcome all Detroit students,” he said, adding, “We would be happy to work with [the district] on policies that embrace all Detroit kids regardless of which school they previously attended.”

But the new process has its supporters, too.

Julius Randall, 14, an incoming 10th-grader at King High School, said the new process has inspired more students to apply for the selective schools — no matter where they attend middle school.

The process also has weeded out students who were applying for the exam schools to attend with their friends, not because they were focused on academics, he said.

“If they don’t let as many kids in who are not going to do anything, or aren’t focused, they are going to have a better school.”

Another of Vitti’s objectives was to increase the number of students with special needs at the exam schools, but the district said it was so far unclear whether that goal had been reached.

“This is the first year of implementing the changes to exam schools,” Wilson said. “We will need more time to collect and analyze data.”


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.