By the numbers

District and charter schools post similar attrition rates, as enrollment debate presses on

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Stories of low-performing students being encouraged to leave charter schools have long fueled criticism of the city’s charter-school sector. But a new analysis of enrollment data shows that low-performing students are just as likely to leave district schools as they are charter schools.

According to the new research, when it comes to a student’s likelihood of leaving a school, “The combination of being low-performing and charter is not different from being low-performing and public,” said Marcus Winters, the researcher who conducted the analysis.

The report was published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, which hosted a discussion of the findings on Thursday that became a feisty referendum on charter school enrollment policy, just as state lawmakers consider increasing the number of charter schools statewide.

“If we’re going to have a conversation about whether or not we should expand the charter school sector in New York City, those conversations need to be grounded in the real data and not just anecdotes,” Winters said.

Winters used Department of Education data from all district and charter schools from the 2006-7 school year to the 2011-12 year. The analysis looks at students in fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades — excluding the fifth-to-sixth grade transition, in which most city students switch schools — and analyzed what happened to three kinds of “low-performing” students using state test scores: students who scored lower than citywide averages, those who scored lower than most students at their schools, and those in the bottom 25th percentile at their schools.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 4.10.50 PM
PHOTO: A graphic from a new report that sheds new light on student attrition in district and charter schools.
A screenshot from a new report looking at student attrition rates at district and charter schools.

Attrition of low-performing students looks similar at district and charter schools, he found. (Winters didn’t focus on which schools had the highest or lowest attrition rates, but attrition rates ranged from 5 percent to more than 20 percent at 13 schools whose charters were up for renewal earlier this year.)

But while many district schools have to fill the open seats left when students leave, charter schools do not — something the report doesn’t acknowledge.

Many schools fill vacant seats, known as “backfilling,” for financial reasons or as part of a mission to serve as many high-needs students as possible. But not doing so, other operators say, enables schools to support their remaining students without the disruption of bringing in new students. It also means that schools with those policies would likely see average test scores increase over time, Winters acknowledged.

The debate took a combative turn at the Manhattan Institute panel, driven primarily by founder and former CEO of Democracy Prep Public Schools Seth Andrew.

“Are charter schools doing all they can to serve the neediest students? Resounding no,” said Andrew, who has recently been focused on encouraging other charter school networks to replace students who leave.

Andrew left Democracy Prep in 2012 to work as an advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. Once an outspoken critic of the teachers union, Andrew has waded back into the city’s education debates as a gadfly within the charter school sector as the founder of the parent group Democracy Builders.

During the panel, Andrew confronted other panelists, accused philanthropists in the audience of “subsidizing the kids who leave” with their private donations, and criticized the media for fixating on test scores as a sole measure of school quality without additional information about who is enrolled at the school.

The time to start “backfilling” students is now, he told the audience.

From left, Seth Andrew, James Merriman, New York Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, who moderated, and Winters. (Not pictured from panel: Ian Rowe)
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
From left, Seth Andrew, James Merriman, New York Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, who moderated, and Winters. (Not pictured from panel: Ian Rowe)

“Find a way to do it and find a way to do it today, because this train is coming and you want to get on board,” said Andrew, who said he plans to release a report next week with more details about the issue.

The panel also included New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman and Public Prep charter school network CEO Ian Rowe.

As lawmakers in Albany continue to debate whether the state’s charter-school cap should be raised, the panel reflected the tension within the city’s charter school sector between those seeking to keep the focus on its triumphs and those like Andrew, who say highlighting its shortcomings is healthier in the long term.

“As we move from laboratories of innovation to at least partial replacement or alternative to the district at scale, I think the answer at least politically and, for me, morally, certainly is yes we need to do more, have to do more and can do more,” Merriman said.

During a question-and-answer portion of the event, Derrell Bradford, a board member of Success Academy and CEO of New York CAN, an advocacy organization, said he “violently disagreed” with Andrew’s focus.

“I don’t think you can have that discussion without also having a discussion about scarcity in district schools,” Bradford said afterwards. “I just think this really needs to be about more good schools, no matter where they are, not just about whether or not we should be squeezing more needy kids into charter schools that already exist.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede