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.”

A closer look at Pathways and Goodwill, visit these links:

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big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.