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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.