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.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire [state] team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests. (Click here to see how Chicago schools ranked.)

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.