Sorting the Students

In the face of parent pleas, Indianapolis Public Schools board modifies Butler lab expansion plan

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Luba Winship and her family live on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She is concerned that her youngest son may not be able to enroll at School 60.

The Indianapolis Public Schools board approved a plan to convert School 55 to the second magnet school in partnership with Butler University Thursday. But in the face of pleas from crying students and parents, the board modified the proposal.

The challenge facing the board was finding a way to accommodate families from across the district who are currently at School 60, the first Butler lab magnet, while also recreating the same school culture at a second campus and containing transportation costs.

The board is committed to replicating successful programs throughout the district, and families need to enroll in newly created programs for them to succeed, said board member Michael O’Connor.

“Some difficult decisions are going to have to be made,” he added.

The decision to convert School 55 to a magnet is the district’s latest move away from the traditional model of assigning students to schools by neighborhood in favor of an approach that encourages families to choose schools by academic focus and philosophy.

Because School 55 will be the second Butler lab magnet, the board designated boundaries for the two schools that aim to reduce transportation costs, balance the number of children eligible for each school and keep the schools diverse. Families who live on the east side of the district will be eligible to apply to School 55. On the west side, families will apply to School 60.

For the 160 students who are currently at School 60 but live in the School 55 boundaries, the initial proposal offered what was meant to be a compromise: They would be allowed to remain at School 60, but the district would no longer bus their children. If they chose to move to School 55, there would be busing.

But the offer did little to appease the parents who delivered impassioned pleas to the board ahead of the vote Thursday.

Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60, live on the east side, in the School 55 boundaries.

Spencer went to the microphone with his mother to read a letter to the board. “There are many people out there that can’t drive their children to school,” he said, before his sobs overwhelmed him and he had trouble speaking.

Driving her son to school every day isn’t an option for her family because she and her husband work, Goodson said.

“Zero of Spencer’s closest friends are also zoned for 55,” she said. “My heart ached when I realized that quite possibly Spencer is going to be separated from people he has cared about for over half his life.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nicole Goodson and her son Spencer, a fifth grader at School 60.

Estimates suggest that providing busing for east side students could cost more than $200,000 per year, or over $1,000 per child, said IPS staffer Joe Gramelspacher.

But in the end, the pleas of parents like Goodson swayed the board. Although they approved the proposal to make School 55 a Butler lab school, they also voted to continue providing transportation to current east side families at School 60 for one year.

“This is the cost of doing business,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “If you are going to expand programs there is going to be an additional cost at least initially.”

But there are other issues raised by current School 60 families that the board didn’t address.

Luba Winship also lives on the east side in the boundary of School 55. She raised concerns that with the proposed boundaries, her youngest child, who is not yet in school, may not be able to win a spot at School 60 because students in the school’s boundaries will have an advantage in the admissions lottery.

“We live less than a mile away from our school,” she said. But “as proposed our last child will have to go to a separate school from his siblings and travel over two and half miles to do so.”

The Butler lab program uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which emphasizes hands-on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. It began at School 60 about five years ago, and since then, it has become one of the district’s most popular magnet programs. Last year 266 students were placed on the school’s waitlist.

In contrast, enrollment at School 55 has been falling, and the elementary school with grades K-6 enrolled just 172 students last year, far below capacity. When it becomes a magnet school, current students at School 55 will be encouraged to stay. The district plans to expand the school up to 8th grade (something parents pushed for), and in order to fit all the students IPS expects, it will add six portable units to the building.

The effort to expand magnet schools goes hand-in-hand with other changes taking place in the district that emphasize options for families and students instead of neighborhood schools. This fall, the district will use Enroll Indy, common enrollment website that allows families to apply for charter schools and magnet schools in one place. And next year, IPS will convert all of its high schools to magnet programs, where students choose the school’s they attend based on their academic and career interests rather than geography.

School 55 was the last remaining neighborhood school in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor. Beginning next year, students who live in that vast territory will have a single boundary school, School 43, which has a new principal following years of instability and low test scores.

The other schools in the northside area offer a broad spectrum of options — Montessori, International Baccalaureate and gifted programs — but they have one thing in common: Students must apply and space is limited.

At most of the district’s magnet schools, families apply the year before and students are admitted by lottery if there are more applicants than seats. Some students get priority in the lottery, including those who have siblings at the school, who live within a zone about a half mile around the school and whose parents work for the district.

vouchers

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.