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.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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