enrollment wars

‘We just want our kids back’: Charter leaders respond to student retention tactics used by Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Katie Kull
Green Dot Public Schools paid for a billboard along a major Memphis thoroughfare to share information about the charter operator's schools.

Carla Oliver-Harris was bewildered by a phone call late this spring from Shelby County Schools saying that her son’s high school was closing and that she should enroll her son at Whitehaven High School instead.

“I thought it was going to be a charter school,” the Memphis mom said about Hillcrest High, which will transition to a charter this fall under the state-run Achievement School District.

Oliver-Harris’ confusion only grew when a note on her son’s end-of-year report card said he now would be zoned to Mitchell High, another school in South Memphis, even though he can walk to Hillcrest and was told transportation wasn’t guaranteed either to Whitehaven or Mitchell.

“We were a bit confused and didn’t know where he was going to go,” she said.

It wasn’t until her son’s football coach called a few weeks later that she learned her neighborhood school will still open on Aug. 8, but will be run now by Green Dot Public Schools. The California-based operator was authorized last year to convert Hillcrest to a charter as part the state’s school turnaround work overseen by the Achievement School District, or ASD.

Oliver-Harris is among Memphis parents contacted this year by Shelby County Schools — still the state’s largest district but one that has lost enrollment annually in recent years — while seeking to retain students and the funding that goes with them. Hillcrest High is one of four Memphis schools previously with Shelby County Schools that are reopening next month as state-authorized charters through the ASD, bringing the city’s number of state-run schools to 31.

District leaders have increasingly blamed its enrollment woes on the growth of the ASD and say the loss of four more of its schools will cost the school system more than $20 million in annual state and local funding. This year, they went on the offense to bolster enrollment by recruiting students, reconfiguring grades in its other schools, and rezoning neighborhood boundaries.

Hillcrest High School
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hillcrest High is among schools at the center of an enrollment tug-of-war.

Some parents and school leaders charge that the district is using another tactic too — spreading misinformation.

They say the district’s opaque campaign to keep its Hillcrest students aims to shift enrollment to existing Mitchell and Whitehaven. Mitchell, about five miles away and one of the newest additions to the district’s heralded Innovation Zone, has room for about 425 more students. Whitehaven High, about two miles away, is overcrowded and one of the district’s highest-performing schools.

The campaign’s full effect likely won’t be known until closer to the first day of school, said Green Dot spokeswoman Jocquell Rodgers. Hillcrest had approximately 500 students last school year. As of early July, 110 were registered as Green Dot doubled up efforts to contact students zoned for the school. “We’ve walked in every apartment complex, knocked on doors, phone calls. We’ve texted,” Rodgers said.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said she would look into allegations about misinformation. She provided the script used for robocalls to parents at the affected schools, which said the ASD would take over operations in August. The script also offered options for moving to another school still with Shelby County Schools.

The issue was broached in an email exchange in May between Dorsey Hopson and Malika Anderson, superintendents of the two districts.

“We are unaware of any evidence to substantiate the allegations … that SCS has sent miscommunication to parents,” Shelby County’s Hopson wrote the ASD’s Anderson on May 20.

“Moreover, assertions that Hillcrest is closing next year would be unbelievable,” he continued. “The community is well aware that Hillcrest will be a part of the ASD next year. Administrators at Whitehaven did acknowledge numerous calls from Hillcrest families inquiring about the choice transfer process and space availability at Whitehaven. While this happens every year, they noted that several families indicated that they wanted to transfer because they did not want to be a part of the ASD.”

Hopson added: “We do not condone any SCS employee sending ‘misleading’ information to families but we will support school leaders’ efforts to market their schools and recruit students. I am somewhat concerned about the perception that SCS and/or its school leaders are engaging in some sort of misconduct.”

Jordan Mann, left, a former Hillcrest High School algebra teacher who is now school operations manager under Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, at the entrance of the school where staff are enrolling students for its first year under the state-run Achievement School District. Mann first alerted the charter operator that Hillcrest report cards said students were now zoned to Mitchell High School.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Jordan Mann, left, a former Hillcrest High teacher who is now operations manager under Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, talks with staff members registering students.

Former Hillcrest algebra teacher Jordan Mann, who is now school operations manager under Green Dot, said she witnessed first-hand efforts to redirect students. While stuffing student report cards in envelopes in May as an employee of Shelby County Schools, she saw notes included from the district.

“It said based on your child’s address, your child has been zoned to Mitchell High School next year. … They all said that,” Mann said.

Students in fact are still zoned to Hillcrest High. Enrolling in Mitchell High would require a transfer request and would not guarantee transportation.

“We’re not trying to say that Mitchell’s bad. We just want our kids back,” Mann said, adding she wanted to stay at Hillcrest to continue relationships with students and their families.

Percy Hunter, parent and community engagement coordinator for Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee and the pastor of Christ United Baptist Church.
PHOTO: Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee
Percy Hunter

Green Dot has tried to get the word out about Hillcrest through a number of avenues, even commissioning a billboard on Elvis Presley Boulevard that said “Welcome to the new ‘Haven for great education” with logos of Fairley and Hillcrest high schools, which are now both Green Dot Memphis schools. The suggestion came from Percy Hunter, a Fairley High alum who is the operator’s parent and community engagement coordinator and the pastor of nearby Christ United Baptist Church. Hunter said he wants people to know “Fairley and Hillcrest still exist and that a great education can still be got at those schools.”

Parents at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which also is being converted to an ASD charter through operator Scholar Academies, have been hit by a similar barrage of conflicting information before and after the two districts’ last-minute effort to collaborate sputtered in May. Now, Scholar Academies is proceeding with its plan to reopen Raleigh Egypt Middle as a charter, while Shelby County Schools has reconfigured the grades of nearby Raleigh Egypt High to attract middle school students there.

The school board’s reconfiguration plan drew a stern reprimand from the Tennessee Department of Education in April, calling the maneuvering “contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.” In its statement, the state also urged districts to “communicate accurate information to families about their choices, inclusive of the ASD, and avoid any communication that would confuse or mislead parents about the options for their children.”

At a late June meeting at the middle school sponsored by Memphis Lift, a parents organization that promotes school choice, many parents whose kids are zoned for Raleigh Egypt Middle said they had no idea the school would even open this fall.

“As far as we were told, they were closing,” said parent LaTonya Key, who found out about the charter option by chance when she came to the school and spoke with the incoming principal of Raleigh Egypt Middle.

For Green Dot’s Rodgers, she understands what’s at stake in Memphis’ increasingly intense battle for students.

“(Shelby County Schools) want to make sure the student stays (in its district),” she said. “… The reach of the ASD is widening. I don’t think people were so nervous about that when the ASD was mostly in Frayser.”

Memphis reporter Katie Kull contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about Shelby County Schools’ script for robocalls to parents.

Play nice

Gov. Bill Haslam convened a ‘power meeting’ between Tennessee’s charter school and district leaders. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. John Forgety is chairman of a House education committee and has become the mediator of a dispute over Tennessee's 2017 charter school law. The Athens Republican is also a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent with McMinn County Schools.

There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.

As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.

And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.

The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.

“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.

One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.

“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”

Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.

Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.

“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.

But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”

Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.


Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information


Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”

A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”

But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.

“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try."Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.

“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”

race in the classroom

This test-prep passage about Robert E. Lee made a New York City teacher feel ‘angry and sick’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Soon after Ruben Brosbe handed out an assigned test-prep packet to his fifth-grade students in Harlem this month, he became concerned.

As he read over his students’ shoulders, he noticed a passage about Robert E. Lee that appeared to minimize the Confederate leader’s role in preserving slavery.

Lee “claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed,” read the passage, which was part of a practice test created for New York schools by Curriculum Associates, a company that makes tests, educational games and classroom materials for schools across the country. The passage went on to say that Lee’s wife “did show genuine concern” for the family’s slaves, teaching them to read and sew.

Brosbe said he found the piece to be “very biased.” But he said he couldn’t discuss it with his students, who are mostly black and Hispanic, because they were taking the practice tests, which Brosbe said the city requires certain low-performing schools to administer twice per year.

“I thought it was very problematic and it didn’t make any sense to me why it would show up on a test when teachers aren’t able to provide any context,” Brosbe told Chalkbeat. He also blogged about the experience, writing that the passage “is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general.”

A spokeswoman for Curriculum Associates said the passage was flagged during a review last fall and is no longer included in new materials.

“As a company, Curriculum Associates takes cultural responsiveness seriously and is committed to constantly evolving our materials to ensure we serve all students equitably,” said Charlotte Fixler, the company’s director of communicationsin an email. “We agree with the fundamental concerns shared by this educator and felt that presenting this content in a non-teacher-led environment was not in the best interest of students.”

She added that the company is working with experts to make sure its materials “don’t marginalize” any students.

New York City education department spokesman Michael Aciman said the passage “lacks important context” and will no longer be included in materials used in city schools.

Brosbe’s concern about the test passage comes amid a new wave of attention to racial bias in classroom materials and instruction in New York City. The incident highlights how even seemingly neutral materials like test-prep booklets can reflect baked-in biases and values.

Reports about several racially charged lessons, including an incident where a teacher is accused of stepping on the backs of students of color to simulate slavery, have given new ammunition to advocates who say the education department needs to provide teacher training and classroom materials that are culturally sensitive and reflect all students.

As Brosbe’s experience shows, even teachers who try to make their classrooms welcoming for all students can be thwarted when they are required to use curriculum materials that they don’t control.

The Southern Poverty Law Center zeroed in on that problem in a recent analysis, finding that popular textbooks rarely detail the “comprehensive history” of slavery, including white supremacy. In a survey, 58 percent of teachers found their textbooks “inadequate” and 40 percent said their state did not offer enough support for how to teach about slavery.

Presented with the passage that Brosbe’s students read, Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance — an arm of the law center which provides free resources for educators — said she saw numerous problems.

“It’s overly-simplified and, worse, lacks context,” she wrote in an email. Those issues, she added, could undermine the test’s effectiveness.

“It reflects a white sensibility that assumes this is a good neutral topic on which to base a test question,” she wrote. “When you use a passage as loaded as this one with assumptions about history, it introduces new variables (does it jibe with what a student believes? Does it make the student angry? Does it demean the student?) that may make it harder for the test to actually measure what it’s intended to.”

Curriculum Associates is a Massachusetts-based company that also produces online “personalized learning” programs that are widely used across the country. Its materials are used by 6 million students, according to a company press release. The passage was included in the company’s “Ready” materials that are designed to mirror New York state tests, Brosbe said.

Many New York City elementary and middle schools use the company’s materials, and the state has previously approved its assessments for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

Brosbe blogged about “feeling angry and sick” after reading the questions about Lee, and included a link to the Curriculum Associates website where the passage was posted. The link stopped working after Chalkbeat sent the company a request for comment late Tuesday.

Brosbe’s concerns about the test passage are in line with a growing push in New York to root out bias in the city’s classrooms and teaching materials.

On Wednesday, a group of parent leaders called for “systemic changes to begin addressing racism in our schools and the school system.” The Education Council Consortium, which represents all the local parent education councils in the city, pointed to a number of other problematic incidents — including a PTA fundraiser ad that featured performers in blackface — but did not specifically address the test passage.

“Underneath these overtly racist incidents,” the group said in a statement, “are microaggressions and implicit biases that plague many students of color on a daily basis, taking a toll on their socio-emotional well being.”

Here’s more from the test passage:

Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t.

His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.