Crosstown conundrum

As Crosstown High seeks to open a year from now in Memphis, here are questions that still loom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crosstown High School is slated to open in the fall of 2017 in Crosstown Concourse, a redevelopment project in midtown Memphis.

Memphis education stakeholders have watched for decades with exasperation as a steady exodus of middle-class students have drained local public schools of talent, engaged families, and funding.

That’s one of the motivations inspiring some of those same stakeholders to push for the creation of a new public high school in midtown Memphis called Crosstown. They want to recapture many of those students and families and provide an option for parents seeking an integrated college prep track within Shelby County Schools.

But exactly how to go about that has presented a challenge for Crosstown supporters, who say they want a rigorous academic school, as well as a school that reflects the city’s racial and economic diversity. As they seek to open Crosstown High School in the fall of 2017, backers now must walk a fine line of navigating the local political environment within Shelby County Schools, a district that is trying to lift the academic performance of all its schools and students, not just to provide a few high-quality options for an elite few.

As education leaders ponder what they want Crosstown to be, here are issues they have to address head on.

Contract school or charter school?

Supporters would prefer Crosstown to be a contract school, though they’re also seeking a local authorization to operate as a charter. With school board approval, both avenues would go through Shelby County Schools and would offer autonomous governance on matters such as curriculum, hiring and school culture.

A contract school would have an independent board. An example in Memphis is Campus Elementary School, which is a contract school operated through a partnership between the district and the University of Memphis. The contract avenue could give its board more control over student enrollment.

Charter schools also are publicly funded but independently operated schools but must be open to all students. They typically use a lottery system for admissions.

The choice of contract vs. charter has huge implications when it comes to enrollment and what demographic of students that Crosstown would serve.

The school’s original plan was to screen students for academic ability, which a contract school could do but a charter school could not.

“[A contract arrangement] could allow the school to more easily maintain the diverse student body we seek,”  said Ginger Spickler, a Memphis parent and founder of the Memphis School Guide, who wants to see Crosstown achieve diversity in academics, race and socioeconomics.

“But even if it’s a charter, we intend to be very intentional in our recruiting efforts to make sure that the lottery pool also reflects the diverse student body we hope for,” said Spickler, who is also a contributor to the Crosstown group’s application to a national contest to reinvent America’s high schools.

What students will Crosstown serve?

Based on its original plan, the vision for Crosstown High’s enrollment is to align most closely with the city’s racial breakdown, not necessarily the demographics of Shelby County Schools.

Source: Crosstown’s charter application
Source: 2010 U.S. Census data
Source: The district’s 2014-15 state report card

The economic breakdown of Crosstown’s first charter application targets a student population in which half of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. That’s up from the first proposal floated to the school board in January that listed a goal of having at least 35 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Almost 80 percent of district students are considered economically disadvantaged, while about 27 percent of Memphians live in poverty.

If it becomes a selective school, how would Crosstown impact the district as a whole?

Crosstown backers say the school would be a win for the district by filling a need for a strong college prep high school track for midtown Memphis, one of the city’s most diverse residential areas.

But a selective school, with greater control over enrollment, also could drain other district-run schools of some of their top-performing students, particularly in optional programs at Central High or Middle College High, as well as “second-tier” private high schools, according to Marcus Pohlmann, a Rhodes College professor and author who has chronicled the history of Memphis schools.

Even so, Pohlmann believes a Crosstown selective option would benefit Memphis as a whole in the long run.

“That gets lost in the discussion rather quickly,” he said. “We’re losing kids to the private school system and potential students whose families might come to Memphis.”

Crosstown backers are quick to say that their school isn’t designed to compete with existing schools such as Central High, located less than two miles away, but to fill a gap in Memphis’ education landscape as an integrated, academically elite public high school.

“Our vision is to be diverse school that attracts both students on free and reduced-price lunch and students who had left public school for privates,” said Meg Crosby, a member of the Crosstown board.

That diversity, say Crosstown supporters, is best achieved through the governance of a contract school.

“We’ll make it work either way, but becoming a charter school does tie our hands in terms of enrollment guidelines,” Crosby said.

What does the immediate future hold for Crosstown supporters?

Since Crosstown’s charter application didn’t make the first cut for approval in June by Shelby County’s school board, backers are retooling their proposal based on the board’s feedback.

Brad Leon, in charge of strategy and innovation for the district, said it’s typical for charter applications not to make the first cut, and that most don’t need a total overhaul. However, he would not speak directly to Crosstown’s application.

The Crosstown board will take its revised application back to the district later this month for the board to review in August.

But even as they seek charter authorization, the Crosstown board will try to negotiate the contract option with Shelby County Schools, according to John Smarrelli, president of Christian Brothers University and chairman of the Crosstown board.

Not only would a contract school provide more flexibility in enrollment, there’s also the matter of money. Under state law, a Crosstown charter school would cost the district $7,748 per student.

“We can negotiate a better deal for [the district] as a contract,” Smarrelli said. “There’s nothing that says once it’s approved as charter that we have to be charter.”

Conversations with school board members about the Crosstown board’s intentions appear to be lacking, however.

Chris Caldwell, whose midtown district includes the proposed school, said contract school negotiations aren’t happening at the board level. And Miska Clay Bibbs, also on the school board, said she thought the contract school proposal was off the table after the two parties couldn’t agree on terms, precipitating Crosstown’s charter application.

Also in the picture is Crosstown’s submission in the national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Five schools across America are scheduled to learn in August whether they’ll be awarded $10 million each as part of the reinvention of America’s high schools. In its application to the contest, Crosstown is marketed as a college prep school that would appeal to the city’s middle class.

Corrections & clarifications: July 15, 2016: This version corrects a previous version that incorrectly stated Crosstown’s demographic goals for serving economically disadvantaged students, based on its first charter application. The application cites a goal of having 50 percent of its student population being economically disadvantaged, up from a previous proposal of at least 35 percent. This story also clarifies that Crosstown would not be an academically selective school, but would also consider racial and socioeconomic background in its selection process.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”