Future of Schools

New guides push school choice for parents, families

PHOTO: Submitted

Shelby County parents have abundant options when deciding where to send their children to school, but there are few, if any, resources to help them navigate the often intimidating process.

Understanding school choice in Memphis, which is home to the majority of the state’s lowest-performing schools, can require copious amounts of research that some choice advocates on the state and local level are hoping they can simplify for parents. But their help comes with a slant away from traditional public schools.

Earlier this month, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a statewide school choice booklet, which the center’s CEO says will give parents access to information about private, charter, homeschool and virtual school options. Traditional public schools are not included in the booklet. The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville, is a free-market think-tank that advocates for unfettered school choice, limited government, and “individual liberty.”

The organization held a press conference  Oct. 8 to launch the release of the booklet, which was co-sponsored by several other pro-school choice organizations: Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO,  Agudath Israel, Education Freedom Alliance, Public SchoolChoiceOptions.org, Tennessee Charter School Center and Tennessee Federation for Children.

“We’re in agreement that parents need a school choice booklet, and this is the first resource that is statewide,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, state director of BAEO.

Approximately 83,000 children in Tennessee attend a failing school, according to the Beacon Center’s presentation.

The booklet has sparked some controversy because of its pointed exclusion of traditional public schools.

“(It) covers both private and public options available to Tennessee families,” said Justin Owen, CEO Beacon Center of Tennessee. “At this time, (public schools) districts differ so greatly in the menu of options that it would be difficult to include in a statewide booklet, so our focus was to provide the general choice options currently available.”

The absence of traditional public schools in the booklet concerns the Tennessee Education Association.

“Our stance is that Tennessee children deserve great public schools and diverting money through vouchers to a private or charter school strips our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents the majority of the state’s public school teachers. “We find the booklet to be misleading and doesn’t fully inform parents. Public schools should have been mentioned.”

An upcoming online choice guide for Memphis will include traditional public schools along with private, charter and virtual options. This effort is being led by Memphis parent Ginger Spickler, who also also serves as communications director  for Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust, or MOST, an organization that helps low-income families pay for private schooling.

Spickler said her website will be similar to a STL City Schools, which offers parents explainers on the four types of schools in St. Louis — regular public, public magnet, public charter, and private — and the steps to researching local schools.  It’s being funded by a local philanthropist “with a strong interest in education,” Spickler said. She said the philanthropist wanted to remain anonymous. Spickler didn’t know when the site will launch.

Simply producing guides for parents won’t help them gain access to the best educational options for their children, said Cardell Orrin, director of the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, a national parent organizing group.

“It’s one thing to have the tool, but parents should know how to use it and why they should,” Orrin said.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at [email protected] and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chalkbeattn.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news: http://tn.chalkbeat.org/newsletter/

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”