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.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”