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.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”