Future of Schools

Vouchers could transform Memphis, and one network of schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A group of Jubilee School students work on a craft during a summer reading program at La Salle School, one of the Memphis schools expected to accept tuition vouchers if the state legislature approves a program.

Before the Achievement School District, before Tennessee allowed charter schools, before Memphis became “Teacher Town,” there were the Catholic Diocese of Memphis’ Jubilee Schools.

The network of schools launched in 1999 with a mission to educate poor students in Memphis, regardless of their religion. The mission made the Jubilee Schools different from Catholic school networks in other cities, which had been closing schools at unprecedented rates. It also placed the schools at the forefront of a movement toward school choice in Memphis that was on the verge of accelerating.

“Jubilee Schools were a really significant first wave of reform in the education setting in Memphis,” said David Hill, director of academic operations for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.

Now, the schools are among the leading advocates for a new controversial form of school choice in Tennessee: vouchers, which would let low-income families zoned to low-performing schools use public funds to pay for private schools. Lawmakers have left voucher legislation on the table in each of the last two years, but sources including lobbyists, researchers at Vanderbilt University, and a Democratic opponent of the program, say vouchers are likely to get the okay next year.

Although its impossible to be sure of what next year’s legislation would look like, the introduction of vouchers could dramatically change the Jubilee Schools’ financial picture. And it would further complicate the web of school options that parents in Memphis already have. Right now parents that would be offered vouchers can already send their students to schools run by the Achievement School District (many of which are charter schools), charter schools outside of the ASD, or the Shelby County Schools.

Jubilee Schools could stand to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they managed to fill all their classroom space, meaning that Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District would receive less. If vouchers become a Memphis reality, other players in school choice will have to react.

“We’d have to step up our game and make sure we have schools where parents want to send their kids,” Chris Barbic, the head of the statewide Achievement School District, said of the post-voucher educational landscape.

The voucher debate in Tennessee

The bill that made it through the State Senate this year would have made vouchers available only to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. Almost all of those students live in Memphis, although that might change when the state releases a new list of priority schools later this month.  The vouchers would either have covered tuition at a private school or let families apply the amount that the state and district together spend per student toward the tuition. And the number of vouchers covered would have grown from 5,000 in the program’s first year to 20,000 two years later.

Until now, opposition from two groups have stopped similar bills that have cropped up the in Tennessee Senate since 2011.

On one side, there are those who say the voucher legislation is not expansive enough, and should include a greater breadth of Tennessee children. In 2013, Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, was at the forefront of a push for an expansive voucher program that would impact students across the state, not just in the bottom 5 percent of schools. This year, he supported the legislation limited to low-income families. Gov. Bill Haslam has insisted he will only sign voucher legislation targeted at low-income students.

The other group argues that voucher bills would deplete the budgets of already cash-strapped schools. Democratic representatives and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have been among the most vocal proponents of that argument.

“When we talk about Tennessee now being behind Mississippi in funding per child, it just seems silly to talk about vouchers,” said Alexei Smirnov, the managing editor of TEA’s magazine.

Barbara Cooper, a Democrat representative from Memphis, echoed concerns about the allocation of school funding at a recent community meeting in Frayser.  Families living in Frayser, a neighborhood already dominated by the Achievement School District, would qualify for vouchers under last year’s proposed legislation.

“I think we need to be careful about that,” Cooper said. “ It’s helping [schools] that are rich already.”

Around the country, uncertain results

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already offer voucher programs. Some of those states only offer vouchers to students who receive special education, but seven extend vouchers to students attending academically-struggling schools and from low-income families. Indiana’s legislation allows even families making up to $62,000 year to use vouchers.

Researchers haven’t reached consensus on the impact of vouchers.  In the 2012-2013 school year, students in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland performed worse on average than their peers in public schools on statewide assessments, and in Louisiana, seven private schools had such low test scores they were prohibited from further accepting vouchers. Other studies have found that voucher programs have improved public schools and increased the likelihood of high school graduation.

Sometimes, more choices does not equal good choices. In Milwaukee, home of the oldest voucher program in the United States, a crop of financially mismanaged and low-achieving private schools popped up after legislation was passed in 1992.

Tennessee’s proposed legislation troubleshoots such pop-up schools by requiring that schools be fully accredited by the state department of education or an agency approved by the department of education at least two years before they can accept voucher payments. The accreditation process takes at least two years, said Claire Smrekar, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education.

Most students who use vouchers in states with programs that extend beyond special education go to previously-established religious schools. In Indiana and Washington, D.C., more than half of these schools are Catholic, although in North Carolina, the most popular school with parents using vouchers is Islamic.

What vouchers could do in Memphis

While Memphis’ Jubilee Schools has spots for 500 students, it’s not clear how many poor students would take advantage of those seats. It is clear they could never educate all of the city’s poor students. Many other independent schools are not interested in accepting vouchers. This spring, researchers from Vanderbilt University did a study of private schools in the Memphis area. After interviews with more than 50 heads of schools, they found most of the private schools either could not or did not want to accept vouchers.

That might encourage legislators redrafting the bill for the next session to ease up requirements for private schools accepting vouchers, said Smrekar, who led the study. Or, of the 20,000 students who would eventually get vouchers, many — maybe even the vast majority —  might not find a private school that would accept them.

The reasons private schools might not accept vouchers range from financial to ideological. Private schools could not charge more than the voucher amount, just a fraction of what some schools charge. Annual tuition for students in grades 9-12 at Lausanne Collegiate School, for example, is $20, 610.

Additionally, many schools are neither set up nor feel a calling to take students who might have fallen several grade levels behind and get them up to speed, Smrekar said. And many more don’t want the government regulation that would come with government funding.

But since the Jubilee Schools already accept Title 1 funding from the federal government, and offer free and reduced lunch, they’re used to government oversight, administrators say.  Students also already take nationally-normed standardized tests twice a year, another stipulation in last year’s proposed voucher bill.

“They’re ready,” said Carra Powell, a lobbyist for Tennessee Federation for Children, and  parent of two in Jubilee Schools and one recent graduate. “As soon as the voucher bill is passed, we’re rolling them in.”

But it’s not clear how great the demand for vouchers in Memphis is. Although choice has expanded significantly in Shelby County in the past decade, with 41 charter schools in operation, few, if any of those charter schools have waiting lists, and many parents still opt to go to their neighborhood school. And a new study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows that school choice doesn’t necessarily equate to increased access to better schools because of barriers like transportation and parents lacking or misunderstanding information schools provide.

Inside Jubilee

Administrators and teachers at Jubilee Schools think they have a lot to offer families currently in public schools.

Catholicism is a central part of the education offered at the Jubilee Schools, and the diocese prides itself on offering a faith-based education, said David Hill, the academic director for the dioceses and a former charter school principal.  A crucifix hangs in every classroom, and students attend mass weekly.

Of the more than 1,000 students who attend Jubilee Schools, most practice a religion other than Catholicism. Most of the teachers aren’t Catholic either, nor is Hill. The diocese’s goal is for students –92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic,  with virtually all of them receiving need-based scholarships–have been in Jubilee Schools since at least third grade to average in the top third on a nationally normed standardized test, the Iowa Assessments, by the sixth grade. More than three-quarters of Jubilee students met or exceeded their expected achievement growth on the Iowa Assessment in English and math, as determined by the Riverside Publishing Company’s Estimated Growth Report for the Iowa Assessment Core Composite during the 2012-13 school year, Hill said.

Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Erika Hansen helps a third grade student work on a craft at a reading program at De La Salle Elementary.

The schools collaborate with the University of Memphis to make sure that growth can happen. This summer, after noting a problem endemic to all schools, students losing knowledge during the summer months, the schools and the University of Memphis decided to hold a summer reading program at De La Salle Elementary School in Midtown. Each day, about sixty third-and-fourth graders from eight of the Jubilee Schools come to De La Salle for breakfast, lunch, and reading activities. Teachers include some from Jubilee Schools, some from other schools in the diocese, and University of Memphis doctoral students. The students are broken into groups of around eight students, depending on their reading level.

On a recent Monday, the program went to Booksellers, a bookstore in East Memphis. Some of the students had never bought a book before, said program coordinator Erika Hansen. By that Wednesday, the students were reading about Ancient Egypt and making jewelry Ancient Egyptians might have worn. (“We’re rich Egyptians,” a third grader explained.)

“It’s really about instilling a love of learning,” Hansen said.

Carra Powell says she’s experienced the schools’ ability to bring kids to grade level firsthand. Before her divorce, her children had gone to a private Montessori School in Mississippi, but as a single mother, she couldn’t afford to keep them there. Her oldest daughter seemed to do fine in the public schools. But her son, who started at the local elementary school in kindergarten, still couldn’t read by the second grade. Powell is quick to say that she does not want to bash the public schools. But, she said, they weren’t working for her son, and she didn’t know what to do.

Some of her friends were Catholic, and recommended she look into Jubilee Schools. Powell went to visit St. John, a Jubilee School in Orange Mound. She said she walked in and talked to the principal, and started to cry. To Powell, now a lobbyist for the Tennessee Federation for Children working on voucher legislation, the Jubilee Schools seemed a godsend.

Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Carra Powell, a Jubilee parent

She said the school was able to get Nicholas up to grade level by working with him on reading in a small group four times a week. He also participated in a book group with the principal after school. In a single school year, his reading test scores improved by 60 percent.

And the small size of the school allowed teachers to provide her daughter, who was above grade level in math and reading, with an individualized curriculum. Her daughter recently graduated from St. John, and is attending St. Agnes, another Catholic school, on a merit scholarship. Powell’s son, an eighth grader, is never without a book. “He reads himself to sleep,” she said.

Powell said that her work as a lobbyist is infused by her children’s experiences.  “I want other people to be able to access these schools,” she said.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Many parents and alumni have criticized the mayor’s plan, saying integration efforts should start much earlier with gifted and talented programs. Some are even calling for a new approach to determining who is gifted.

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative has not lobbied to keep the specialized high school exam in place.