backfill battle

Data release the latest salvo in former charter leader’s lonely backfill campaign

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Over the past four months, Seth Andrew has waged a lonely campaign to get charter schools to sign on to “backfilling,” an enrollment issue previously seen mostly as a quiet rift among the sector’s leaders.

Agreeing to backfill, at least through eighth grade, means schools would have to add new students to fill empty seats created when students leave. For years, schools have stayed away from adding new students, allowing them to avoid the potential for disruption and the lower test scores that might being coming with them.

But critics like Andrew, who stepped down from running his own Harlem-based charter school network two years ago, argue that refusing to backfill casts a shadow over schools’ high test scores by effectively excluding students who didn’t succeed.

Through op-eds, new legislation, and, in one memorable episode, the public scolding of a charter school leader during a panel last month, Andrew has elevated the rift to an amplified — if not harmonious — new level.

“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,” Andrew said last month.

But as the latest salvo in his campaign was released on Friday, it was clear Andrew’s tactics had failed to inspire much unity, with only one charter school signing onto a related press release.

Andrew’s parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, put out a report and accompanying enrollment data, finding that charter schools lost more than 2,500 seats in 2014 to student attrition that had not been backfilled. The report argued that such schools are “artificially inflating perceived performance” on state tests, pointing to research that shows students who leave tend to be lower performing than the peers the left behind.

The data is posted online at the Democracy Builders web site in a series of charts, combining a school’s cohort size, in tested grades, with the number of students who scored proficient on those tests. Users can sort information five ways – by year, testing subject, grade level, network, and individual school – though its functionality is at times challenging.

The default landing page highlights the average cohort sizes from 2006 to 2014 and corresponding test score data for the city’s four large charter management organizations: Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Success Academies and KIPP.

Visually, the chart for Success Academy paints a grim picture of its enrollment practices. No other charter school network, it seemed, shed as many students without replacing them as Success.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.08.36 PM
A screenshot of charts showing enrollment and test score patterns at large charter management organizations from 2006 to 2014.

But the report neglects some important context. Success’ cohort size averages are skewed because it’s based on third grade data from nine elementary schools, compared to just one school — Harlem Success 1 — for the seventh and eighth grade data.

It also does not prominently display enrollment patterns from recent years, which would have painted Success in a less negative light. In 2014 alone, the average cohort size of Success’s fifth grade classes was 96 students out of a maximum capacity of 97 students, compared to 75 students posted in the eight-year averages, suggesting that it has significantly reduced its attrition rates. (Success’s backfill policy, until this year, was to not accept any new students after third grade.)

A screenshot of charts showing enrollment and test score patterns at large charter management organizations for only the 2013-14 school year.
A screenshot of charts showing enrollment and test score patterns at large charter management organizations for only the 2013-14 school year.

“Virtually all of our schools are at 100 percent capacity, and we have 19,000 students on waiting lists,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement. “Accepting more students in higher grades would just force us to admit fewer in the lower grades.”

Some independent charter schools also added few new students when seats opened up. Amber Charter School, a unionized charter school visited by Mayor Bill de Blasio on the first day of school, and whose principal was on the steering committee of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, saw one third grade cohort fall from 72 students in 2012 to 48 student in fifth grade two years later.

Andrew asked some of the large networks highlighted in the data to endorse his report, but none did. The only support the campaign garnered was an unidentified “representative” from the Coalition of Community Charter Schools and one charter school, St. Hope Academy Charter School, whose board of directors includes an executive at Democracy Prep, the charter school network Andrew founded and with which he remains closely involved.

Later, some of the networks, released their own statements.

“Our mission is to provide a high-quality education to as many students as possible, and we believe in backfilling open seats because it allows us to provide opportunities to more kids who need a great education,” said Amanda Pinto, a spokesperson for Achievement First. She added she school’s policy this year has been to replace each student who leaves, and this week accepted 275 new students to replace the students who were leaving at the end of the year.

Andrew’s charter network, Democracy Prep, is one of the very few networks that has historically replaced all of its students and whose schools have seen the total number of students scoring proficient on state exams increase in higher grades. At most schools, as highlighted in the enrollment data, that number has decreased.

But Democracy Prep has also had high attrition rates, data that Andrew’s report does not highlight.

Some the schools on Friday made a special effort to emphasize that they lost relatively few students, and hence needed to replace fewer kids.

“We are proud that our student attrition last year was only 4 percent, creating a very limited number of open seats which we fill from our waiting lists,” Uncommon Schools spokesperson Barbara Martinez said.   “Each year, we backfill an increasing number of seats, and will continue to do so in the future.”

“I think attrition is more important than backfill,” said KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini. “We had 3,595 student in the 13-14 school year. We lost 188 kids. That comes out to be 5 percent .”

Andrew declined to speak on the record for this story. But he has succeeded at least at raising awareness around the issue in recent months. And he had a hand in crafting transparency legislation in the City Council that would further force both charter and district schools to open up their books on who is staying and going and who is being replaced.

“I’m getting really strong positive reaction from colleagues across the spectrum,” said Mark Levine, who sponsored the legislation with help from Andrew. “I feel like it’s going to have really broad support.”

Princess Lyles, executive director of Democracy Builders, said the absence of other charter schools from Friday’s report and an accompanying press conference at City Hall was an indicator that the schools weren’t yet fully on board with backfilling and would need more pressure. And she challenged assertions from charter management organizations that they were backfilling, pointing to previous years’ data highlighted in their report.

“The problem with this is that you can only go off self-reported data,” Lyles said. And she said her group wouldn’t be happy until the schools were backfilling all open seats.

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

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