One county, seven districts: Vying for students as Shelby County Schools de-merges

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

One recent Thursday, as Millington leaders hosted a community meeting for their brand-new school district, one of the district’s school board members took the floor at an event a few miles down the road, hosted by the district Millington is separating from: Shelby County Schools.

Armed with a stack of flyers, Cody Childress turned to address the families gathered to hear how the fracturing of Shelby County Schools will force them to move schools this fall: “We want you in Millington!” Childress said.

Some parents didn’t even wait for the Shelby County’s question and answer session to end before they came to ask Childress for flyers.

With less than six months to go before the new school year starts, six new suburban districts and the Shelby County school system, which will include Memphis and the unincorporated parts of the county, are campaigning to convince families to choose their district.

The districts have held open houses, hosted community meetings at churches and town centers, distributed flyers, and built social media presences to prepare for their first year of school.

The new suburban districts in Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington are being carved out of a merged school system that encompasses legacy Shelby County Schools, which was mostly suburban, and Memphis City Schools, largely urban. Suburban leaders fought hard to create the new districts, raising local taxes and petitioning for a change to state law in order, they said, to gain local control over their schools. But only those within the city limits of each municipality are zoned to the new districts, leaving a large number of families who previously attended schools in the suburban district to be rezoned to the merged, mostly-urban Shelby County system.

More than 20,000 students are anticipated to attend the new municipal districts next year: The 140,000-student Shelby County district is budgeting for just 117,000 students in 2014-15.

A lot rides on which students choose to attend which district. Government funding and staffing plans are based on the number of students a district serves. For instance, next year’s projected enrollment drop means Shelby County Schools’ budget is decreasing from $1.2 billion for 2013-14 to $961.3 million in 2014-15. Several recently released reports from Southern Educational Strategies predict that several of the municipalities will likely enroll hundreds fewer students than they’d originally planned, leaving a possible budget deficit.

Districts’ reputations are also at stake. Some suburban leaders have described their schools as superior to those run by legacy Memphis City Schools.

And all parties are awaiting the outcome of a long-standing civil rights lawsuit alleging that the new districts will cause resegregation in Shelby County: Though the new districts and Shelby County voted to settle the suit, federal judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. has not yet dismissed the charges.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said that Shelby County Schools is focusing on creating high-quality options to retain or recruit new students. For instance, Germantown High School is becoming an optional program for high-performing students. The district has also created a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) optional school.

Shelby County has hosted a series of informational meetings about rezoning proposals for the affected students and is gathering feedback from parents to determine its final plans.

Hopson said the district would have a more targeted “marketing” campaign after it was finished with its budget. “We have the advantage that the kids are already with us,” Hopson said. While it is promoting programs for high-flyers to suburban parents, the Shelby County district is also facing competition for its lowest-performing schools from the state-run Achievement School District, which will take over several of its schools next year, and the growing charter school sector.

Though the municipal districts are bounded by city lines, they are making efforts to recruit students from outside their boundaries. Families must provide their own transportation if they are not zoned to the municipal district. Several districts considered, then rejected, charging a small tuition to students outside of their schools’ zones.

David Roper, the superintendent of the new Millington school system, said the district is sending out student intent forms to students who are currently part of Millington and for those who attend other schools but might like to attend a Millington school next year.

“We’re not trying to go out and do a sales job, per se,” he said. “We’re trying to say, here’s who we are, here’s what we have to offer – we would welcome you to come and be a part of our school system.”

He said that Millington currently enrolls 2,600 students and hopes to have a similar number next year, though some of those 2,600 are zoned to Shelby County.

“As long as they’re a student in good standing and we have space available, we’ll approve a transfer for them to come and be part of Millington schools,” Roper said.

Lisa Parker, the chair of the Germantown board, said the district was encouraging its schools to “think out of the box” in an attempt to attract families. “If you want to do engineering, you can do that; if you want to do world languages, you can do that,” she said. “We want to work with the administration and give them the autonomy to do what they think is best.”

“The (suburban) schools have always competed for the best teachers and students,” said Russell Dyer, coordinator of human resources for Colliverville Schools. “We’re next door to Germantown; they have high-performing schools and we have high performing schools. We want to make our district as attractive as possible.”

Most of the municipal districts are confident in their ability to recruit students.

“I haven’t heard anybody who says they do not want to be part of the Arlington community school system,” said Danny Young, a board member for the new Arlington system. “We’re having people who want to get in. That’s going to be our issue.”

He said the board’s enrollment policy gives priority to students in Arlington but allows all others in Shelby County to attend for free. Only out-of-state students would have to pay tuition.

Still, making sure classrooms are full – or full-enough – hangs over the districts’ unfinished plans. The municipalities have not yet put together budgets or benefit packages for teachers. “All buildings are going to have a target number to meet,” Young said. “The [state] BEP money doesn’t cover 100% of funding. You hate to put money on children, but it takes money to educate students.”

Millington superintendent Roper said he is trying to counteract the rumors that have spread among parents due to the large number of changes. “Some people got the message that if they lived outside of the city limits of Millington, they would not be able to attend our schools and would have no choice. That’s not true.”

At the Shelby County rezoning meetings, many parents were interested in keeping their children in the schools they currently attend even as they become municipal schools.

Shelby County parent Tolona Moore has studied the test scores of Houston High School, where she wants to send her children next year. But she’s not sure if the new Germantown municipal district will have space for them.

“Whether my children will be able to attend Houston High School is a serious concern,” Moore said. “If they are allowed to enroll one year and not the next, they would end up changing schools again. I can’t afford private school, but I am willing to pay $200 and drive them to school. There’s a lot to consider.”

“It’s not fair,” said Debbie Bounds, a mother of seven children concerned about her children having to change schools and face a longer bus ride to a Shelby County School. She attended a meeting last Thursday at Cordova High School.

Shelby County board members Teresa Jones and Billy Orgel also attended Thursday’s meeting and listened to parents’ concerns.

“We’re trying to make the best of a situation, and it’s not that good,” Orgel said. “Our hands are tied. There’s nothing we can do about the split. We’re sensitive about what’s going on. I feel bad for the teachers and the administration.”

Jones added that Shelby County Schools was “trying to be as respectful as it could.”

“We’re trying to make informed decisions about the rezoning proposals. There’s going to be disruption.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.