school closures

Community proposes plan to save Carver High School, one of the few low-performing schools Shelby County hasn’t overhauled

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Carver High School served the Riverview neighborhood of South Memphis since 1957.

If the third time’s the charm for efforts to close George Washington Carver High School, it won’t be because the community gave up on the long-struggling school.

Local leaders have sprung to defend the school each time the district has proposed closing it, most recently in a surprise recommendation last month.

“You would think the third time, people think, ‘They’re going to do it anyway,’ so people would not show up to rallies,” said Ralph White, a Carver graduate who is also the pastor of neighboring Bloomfield Baptist Church. “But just the opposite happened. We’ve had better response this time.”

The outcry — and a community proposal to improve Carver — prompted the school board to reconsider the closure last week even as it moved ahead with shutting down other schools last month. Now, the community waits to learn this week whether Shelby County will try to move forward with closing the 198-student school this year, which the cash-strapped district says would save nearly $1 million a year.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Carver is one of the only low-performing schools in Shelby County that hasn’t been overhauled or closed in recent years — and uncertainty over its future has surely contributed to its decline.

White’s accounting of Carver’s closure attempts starts in the 1990s. But the contemporary era of school closures in Memphis began in 2012, when the state first named 69 low-scoring “priority schools” in the city that had to either improve or shut down. Almost all of those schools have since been taken over by the state-run Achievement School District; added to Shelby County’s Innovation Zone and given additional resources; or closed. Carver is one of just a few schools on the list not to change at all.

That’s not to say that the district hasn’t considered deploying those strategies at Carver, or that they haven’t affected the school.

Carver first faced closure in 2012, when the Shelby County and Memphis City school districts merged and considered closing schools with low enrollment as a way to use their pooled resources more effectively. Students testified in public hearings against the proposal, and ultimately the new board decided to close only a few schools that year. Carver wasn’t among them.

The following year, the school got what initially seemed to be a boost: The school board voted to fold Riverview Middle School into Carver, which would boost its enrollment and bring new resources. But the board reversed the decision when it realized that closing Riverview could mean giving up federal funds that were being used to improve it as part of the district’s iZone.

At the same time, the Achievement School District was considering adding Carver to its portfolio. A local advisory council set up to help the state-run district match schools to charter operators chose Green Dot Public Schools for Carver, but Green Dot officials said their outreach efforts at Fairley High School were more successful and chose to run that school instead. The episode left Carver with negative press but no new help.

Each time, the school’s advocates have breathed a sigh of relief when the school was removed from the chopping block, assured that the school that had been open since 1957 would survive.

But the school’s difficulties deepened over this period, as well, as it dropped to the fourth-lowest-performing in Tennessee according to the state’s rankings. Enrollment fell from 700 students a decade ago to fewer than 200 now, according to district officials, and the school found it hard to hold on to teachers.

Ralph White, Carver alumnus and pastor at Bloomfield Baptist Church (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)
Ralph White, Carver alumnus and pastor at Bloomfield Baptist Church (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)

The neighborhood saw its population decline during this time, but the uncertainty over Carver’s future also prompted students to transfer or not enroll, White said. Community organizer and former Memphis City Schools board member Sara Lewis pointed to an even broader effect of the repeated referendums on Carver’s existence.

“It just contributes to the further decline of the community,” she said. “And children think we as a community don’t really care about them.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members that the school is in such dire straits that there would be little value in keeping it open.

“The conditions over there in regard to the low enrollment and the constant turnover just make it a very difficult situation for anybody to thrive in,” Hopson said during the April meeting. “I would even say that the faculty there is really doing the best they can with what they have.”

The school’s 16 teachers, who would have to find new positions within the district or lose their jobs, have not participated in the public protests. Neither has Principal Alvin Harris, although he attended the most recent hearing, which drew about 200 people earlier this month. (Harris did not return a request for comment.)

Instead, support for the school has come mostly from the community leaders who have been at Carver’s side each time it was threatened. The George Washington Carver High School Alumni Association put together a community plan that represents the most specific set of suggestions community partners have come up with since the closure attempts started, White said.

The plan includes a proposal to expand Carver’s enrollment zone to include some territory that was rezoned to Hamilton High School when another area high school closed. It also plans for alumni, business leaders, and nonprofit partners to supply academic tutoring and reopen a family resource center at the school. And it urges Hopson to add Carver to the iZone.

Until he hears Hopson’s answers to the community plan this week, White said he’s still prepared to keep up the fight.

“It’s an ongoing effort,” he said. “We’re sleeping in our battle clothes.”

At the school’s recent community meeting on the proposed closure, school board member Shante Avant, whose district includes Carver, commended community members for supporting the school but noted that more alumni than current parents or students had spoken out.

She suggested that community members would do well to back the board’s plan to move Carver students to Hamilton High School, which is getting extra resources already as part of the district’s iZone and would get even more to support the new students.

“History is important,” Avant said. “But we have to think of the future of our children who are currently here.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.