next steps

Crosstown High set to open as a Memphis charter school, unless it doesn’t

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Michelle McKissack, a board member of Crosstown High School Inc., speaks in May with supporters of the proposed new high school for midtown Memphis.

With a charter now in their hip pocket, backers of Crosstown High School are assured of a path toward creating a new kind of high school in Memphis. But that doesn’t mean they’ll choose the charter option.

Leaders have said all along that they’d prefer governance under a contract model, and that hasn’t changed.

“We’re still keeping all options open and will pursue the model that will allow us to recruit the a diverse student body and open our doors as expeditiously as possible,” spokesman Kerry Hayes said on Wednesday. “That said, we are obviously very grateful that (Shelby County Schools) has granted our charter and shares our overall vision for our school.”

The school board approved Crosstown’s application Tuesday night on a 7-2 vote, clearing the way for the school to open in August of 2018 with 125 ninth-graders. This is a change for the future charter in the city’s midtown area, which originally planned to open in fall of 2017 with a 500-student body. Supporters say Crosstown will be a diverse college prep school that should help Shelby County Schools recapture middle-class families who have fled the district over the years.

“Approval of our charter application allows us to move forward with hiring leaders and faculty for our school, beginning construction, and executing a plan to recruit a diverse student body and staff,” said John Smarrelli, chairman of Crosstown’s board of directors and president of Christian Brothers University, a partner in the project.

A contract model, similar to Campus Elementary School operated by the district in partnership with the University of Memphis, would give Crosstown more control over student enrollment. That track would also have to be approved by Shelby County’s school board, which has been lukewarm about the idea thus far.

Both options would be publicly funded and could have an independent board. (Read our coverage of Crosstown’s charter versus contract option here).

The differences:

  • A contract school would give its board more control over student enrollment.
  • A charter school must be open to all students. Charters typically use a lottery system for admissions.

Crosstown High has been a high-profile idea since its inception in 2015. It’s among 50 finalists for one of at least five $10 million prizes from a national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, to reimagine what U.S. high schools could be. Winners are expected to be announced publicly on Sept. 14.

The school is to be housed in Crosstown Concourse, a high-rise building being redeveloped in a former Sears warehouse built in the 1920s. Crosstown would occupy the fourth and fifth floors, and other building tenants would be mostly from educational, healthcare and retail sectors.

Update, Sept. 7, 2016: Crosstown board members announced that the school is no longer planned to open fall of 2017 as a 500-student charter. The new plan is for Crosstown to open a year later, in August of 2018, with 125 ninth-graders. It will eventually grow to capacity at 500 students.

Correction, Aug. 25, 2016: This story has been corrected to show that the school board voted 7-2 to approve Crosstown’s application. A previous version incorrectly stated that the vote was unanimous.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.