sorting the students

Carranza didn’t expect ‘screening’ comments to create such an uproar

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Richard Carranza visits the Bronx Charter School for Excellence and speaks to Charlene Reid, the network's Chief Executive Officer.

A week after New York City’s new schools chief criticized competitive admissions at some city schools, he said he did not realize his comments would cause such a stir.

Chancellor Richard Carranza stepped into the thorny issue last Wednesday when he argued that sorting students by ability is “antithetical” to the goal of public education. The comment generated buzz in a school system where 28 percent of city schools select students based on factors such as grades, test scores, interviews, or auditions.

But to Carranza — who has only spent about two months on the job — the statement was less radical than it appeared to seasoned New Yorkers.

“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said on Wednesday while visiting a charter school in the Bronx. “I thought it was kind of obvious to be quite honest with you.”

Carranza did not say what specifically he would do to reduce or eliminate admissions “screening” in New York City. Instead, he pledged to have tough conversations about why the practice exists and make decisions afterwards. (Chalkbeat, however, has put together a list of ideas that could help reduce screening.)

He also did not provide a timeline for when he plans to tackle screening. He said nothing would happen “overnight,” while promising the issue is currently being taken seriously at the education headquarters in Tweed courthouse.

“There is movement, my friends, there are conversations that are happening,” Carranza said. “Let’s just all take a breath and be part of the process.”

Here is a transcript of his comments. It has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You expressed some concerns about screening students last week. I’m wondering what’s your timeline for addressing some of these issues and do you have any thoughts about how you might start to address it in a system where so many schools are screened?

A: Yeah, I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal. I thought it was kind of obvious to be quite honest with you.

Q: The system lives and dies by screening. That’s how these elite schools all work.

A: Well what do I know? I just got here. But I can tell you this, that public schools are public schools and my conversations with the mayor, the mayor and I are very much aligned in wanting to create as many opportunities, cast as wide as a net as possible. He said on many occasions he wants New York City to be the fairest large city in America. I agree with that so I think we need to look at how screening works.

Now, you know, you have all the pundits that then will say, well, there are certain reasons, so you mean then that no one should ever have to audition for a performing school? Well no. Come on, let’s be serious about this. There are some instances where you have a screening process for a very specific program. I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about is you live on a certain block and there is a middle school right around the corner and really you have to take a test and you have to be interviewed and there has to be a portfolio. I think we should have a conversation about is that OK? I just think we should have a conversation. And if New Yorkers think that that’s OK then let’s figure out why that’s OK. And let’s figure out also, who gets into those schools and who doesn’t get into those schools.

Because I will tell you that kids that look like me probably don’t get into those schools. Kids that are African-American, black, don’t get into those schools. Students with disabilities probably don’t get into those schools. English language learners probably don’t get into those schools. So I think we have to have a conversation. And again, I’m not looking to worry everybody and say ‘oh my goodness everything’s going to change overnight.’ That’s never been my style. But it’s also never been my style to see something and as an educator when it doesn’t make sense not ask: Why is it the way it is? And that’s really what I’m doing. Why is it the way it is?

Q: With this whole [District 3 middle school integration plan], it’s your own department that’s proposing another way of setting aside seats on top of a screened system. It’s not like they’re using this as an opportunity to say, hey, we have a new chancellor in town, he’s not really into screening, let’s start fresh. Or let’s come up with something new. It would just seem like what you’re saying at the Olympian level is not really matching what the enrollment folks are proposing.

A: When did we have our press conference?

Q: A week ago, I know. 

A: Again the fact that we’re having these conversations. When’s the last time we had these conversations, #1? #2 the fact that we have districts that are already working on this. #3 The fact that we have a districtwide diversity group that’s working and will be giving us some recommendations, #3. The fact that the mayor’s talking about this as well as other elected officials is #4. There is movement, my friends, there are conversations that are happening. Let’s just all take a breath and be part of the process.


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.