charter schools

A new role for Memphis charters: Educating “nontraditional” students

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Pathways, in Frayser - a new alternative school that is part of the ASD.

As Shelby County Schools plans to dramatically reshape its alternative school program, several new charter schools aimed at educating nontraditional students and students who have been expelled or suspended from public schools in Memphis have opened their doors, and more are on the way.

  • Memphis could be one of the first expansion sites for Excel Academies, a charter school run by Goodwill Charities, aimed at getting dropouts to earn high school diplomas that lead to better jobs. The group applied for a charter from Shelby County Schools in early April. (Read more here)
  • The state-run Achievement School District has contracted with Pathways In Education, which serves both middle school and high school students who have been removed from their regular school, and also offers classes for those who had dropped out of school altogether. The state-run ASD has also made public the fact that it is looking for additional alternative school charter schools. (Read more here)
  • Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is in his first year running the Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools. Two of those were aimed at at-risk students: The school has partnered with the local government to connect to young boys who are on probation. One of those has closed.

Lili Allen, the ‎director of Back on Track Designs at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that consults with organizations working with disconnected or off-track young people, said the flexibilities granted to charter schools – they have control over their budget, hiring, schedule, and curriculum – can be useful for schools hoping to educate students who are off-track, who have been expelled or suspended, or who are otherwise disconnected from school. “We would never say you have to be a charter, but the structure can be quite useful for schools serving this population.”

“Too often, district alternative schools will be asked to just offer exactly what the district offered as repeater course,” she said. “So having flexibility to redesign the curriculum is a critical thing. Similarly, the flexibility around budget is really important. When you’re trying to meet the particular needs of young people coming in behind, who may face additional barriers, having the right budget flexibility can allow you to staff the school appropriately, to get a mix of online instruction and face-to-face instruction, to personalize reports.”

Proponents of the new schools say they will help fill a gap in the Memphis education landscape. Some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have a high school diploma, according to data from the U.S. Census, and another 7,200 students drop out each year. About 1,900 students attend the district’s alternative programs, though that number fluctuates, and 3.8 percent of the legacy Memphis City’s student population was expelled in 2012-13, according to the state’s report card.

Just how to reach and serve students who have dropped out or who are at risk of leaving school has been an area of focus in Memphis and nationally. Shelby County is hoping to increase its graduation rate from around 67 percent (legacy Memphis City Schools’ graduation rate for the 2012-13 school year) to 90 percent by 2025. The district’s plan to revamp its alternative school programs includes a stronger focus on returning students to traditional schools.

Both Pathways and Goodwill would offer high school diplomas to students, not a GED. Diploma-holders are more likely to attend college than holders of a GED.

Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that serving at-risk students is a “traditional role” for charter schools – Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington are among the cities that have charter schools for “nontraditional” students. He said most of the models had been developed from the “ground up,” responding to community needs. But these new schools are the first charter schools in Memphis to fill that role.

Traditional alternative schools in Shelby County serve students who have been expelled or suspended from their regular schools. According to the district’s student handbook, Shelby County’s alternative schools adhere as closely as possible to the academic program at a student’s home school, though they may offer additional services or supports to meet students’ “nontraditional needs.” State law requires districts to have alternative schools for these students.

The new alternative schools each aim to work with slightly different groups of students. Pathways and Goodwill have programs for those who have already dropped out of school. Pathways also has middle and high school students who have been remanded from their regular schools or those who may be pregnant, dramatically overage or academically behind, or otherwise at risk of dropping out. Herenton’s schools were focused on students returning from the justice system or students who are currently incarcerated.

Funding the new schools can have unexpected wrinkles. The schools receive state and federal funds for each student they enroll. Dropout recovery in particular means the government may be funding schools for more adults out of money usually slated for children and teenagers. In Indiana, for instance, the state implemented a $25 million cap on spending for dropout recovery charter schools after being surprised by their popularity.

Oversight and accountability in these schools presents unique challenges, too: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers released a report late last year highlighting the specific oversight necessary for alternative charter schools, which it says are becoming increasingly common.

In Tennessee, test scores of students in alternative schools have traditionally been counted for the regular school the student last attended. Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, said that it wasn’t entirely clear how accountability would work for a school like Goodwill’s, which has not yet been approved.

Margo Roen, the New Schools Director for the state-run Achievement School District, said the ASD contracted with Pathways and announced that it was searching for new alternative school operators after analyzing where there was need in Memphis. “There’s a lack of alternative models in Memphis…We need to make sure that just because a student is behind academically, or if they’ve been remanded because of a zero tolerance policy, they still have options,” she said.

Though the ASD believes there is a need for still more alternative school options in Memphis, no additional alternative school operators applied to open schools in the ASD next year, Roen said.

Goodwill is looking to bring its model to Memphis after seeing some success in Indianapolis. “We had great response from their political leaders and community organizations,” Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill’s Education Initiatives in Indianapolis.

Jobs For the Future’s Allen said it is important that programs are more than just online-only credit recovery programs. “Are they using the charter flexibilities to put in place the right programming that we know these young people are using to succeed? It’s a great potential opportunity but doesn’t guarantee success.”

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A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”