Future of Schools

Shelby County board expected to close one Memphis school, revoke charter on another

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A boarded-up Orleans Elementary School is among Memphis schools closed since 2012.

In a district plagued by shrinking funding and enrollment, proposals to close schools have become an annual rite of spring for Shelby County Schools, where the school board is again faced with the prospect of shuttering more Memphis campuses.

This spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has recommended closing two more schools at the close of the school year. However, based on discussions during last week’s board work session, the proposed closures appear to be more clear-cut than the emotionally charged closings of past years.

No protest signs were waved and the crowd was light. The work session was held during the district’s spring break week but, even so, board members didn’t dispute recommendations by Hopson’s administration.

The school board is expected on Tuesday evening to approve the closure of Memphis Health Careers Academy and to begin the process of revoking a charter that will close the two campuses of New Consortium for Law and Business. The latter is a district-authorized charter school operated by SMART Schools Inc., and Hopson has recommended for a second straight year that its charter be revoked. Last July, the board voted narrowly to give the operator a one-year reprieve to address complaints of mismanagement.

The board also is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a massive maintenance deferral plan that identifies and prioritizes $476 million in critical facility repairs for the next five years.

Twenty Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, including three last year as the cash-strapped district dealt with a $125 million deficit. Hopson announced last week that the district faces an $86 million budget gap next fiscal year, up from an earlier estimate of $72 million, and he is proposing $50 million in cuts.

Beyond the two school closings recommended in a March 22 report, district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent said she was not aware of the school system exploring additional closings this year.

Memphis Health Careers Academy opened in 2008 with a goal of maintaining a 250-student enrollment and equipping students for certification for a career in health-related fields. But the current enrollment is just 74 students, and only three students left the school with any type of certification last school year.

Additionally, the academy achieved a TVAAS growth score of only 2 out of 5 last school year, down from a 4 the previous school year.

“With the Memphis Health Careers Academy, most importantly is that the academic performance is not consistent with its mission,” said Hopson, noting that the school employs 17 educators to teach 74 students. “That’s not, in our judgment, an efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Shelby County Schools authorized the charter for New Consortium for Law and Business in 2013 as a school of excellence for law and business education. But the school has struggled with enrollment, standardized test scores and teacher turnover. Last year, Hopson recommended closure following a district investigation for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for an entire month and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan. However, board members were reticent to close the school as a new school year was about to begin, which would have forced parents to scramble to find a new school late in the enrollment process.

“At the time, our board was clear that, if the infractions continued, we would come back in March; we would move forward with the discussion of revoking the charter,” Hopson said.

District leaders say that, since that time, the consortium has continued to violate both state statutes and its charter agreement with Shelby County Schools, including accusations that the school failed to file financial audits for a second consecutive year, listed at least two students as enrolled last year while they were enrolled in other schools, failed to enter student attendance data for the first 48 days of this year, and assigned students to a teacher who did not teach them.

In addition, the school scored only 1 out of 5 in TVAAS growth for both 2014 and 2015, and its academic performance puts it in the bottom 3 percent of all schools in the state, according to district documents.

In an open letter to board members, school founder and executive director Tommie Henderson accused the district of “reckless behavior” and efforts to disrupt school operations. Shelby County Schools “strategically works against our charter school,” Henderson wrote.

Hopson said he “utterly disputes” Henderson’s accusations.

The district has scheduled community meetings next month to guide parents through their options if the closures are approved. Meetings on the consortium are planned for April 7 and April 14, and a meeting on the academy is set for April 12.

The five-year deferred maintenance plan would set priorities through 2021 based on an architectural assessment of district-owned buildings that total 22 million square feet. Roofing repairs alone would cost more than $67 million, fire systems and electronic intercoms warrants another $59 million.

The advanced age of many buildings was an important factor as the assessment found more than $476 million in needed repairs, noting that “many building systems and structure are original … and have far exceeded their life expectancy.” In fact, out of 182 schools in the district, 143 are 40 years or older, the assessment said.

Tennessee is one of 12 states that does not provide state funding toward facility maintenance and construction, according to a new report. The same report estimates the government is spending $46 billion less a year than is needed to ensure students have safe and environmentally sound schools.

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.