Roll call!

Why it’s hard to get students to come to class — and what one Memphis school is doing about it

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Eighth-grader LaTonja Boyce now gets driven by a family member to Riverview School, a K-8 school in south Memphis, but that's not always been the case.

LaTonja Boyce knows the challenges of getting to school when the odds are stacked against you. An eighth-grader at Riverview School in Memphis, she’s moved a lot — from home to home and family member to family member — without the structure, resources and guidance needed to get to school every day and on time.

“Going to school isn’t always like the cool thing to do or what you see other kids on your street doing,” says LaTonja, 13, who now lives with a grandmother while her siblings are in foster care. “But I’ve had teachers make me want to come. I know they will check on me if I’m not there … and they explain why (education) is important for your future.”

LaTonja’s story isn’t unique. High rates of mobility and poverty are among hurdles that stand in the way of getting to school in Memphis, where chronic absenteeism is a major challenge.

Last school year, 29,000 students in Shelby County Schools missed 18 or more school days. And it’s worse for Tennessee students living in poor neighborhoods. Those considered economically disadvantaged are three times more likely to be chronically absent, according to a state report released this year.

For students who defy the odds, encouragement from a teacher or mentor is a common theme.

Sixth-grader Miranda Moore began attending Riverview when her school, Lincoln Elementary, was closed by the district in 2015. It was hard coming to class when she felt behind the other students, but encouragement and attention from teachers made a huge difference.

“Whenever I feel like I’m not getting something, I like it when teachers break us up into groups and have us help each other put what the teacher is saying into our own words,” Miranda says. “When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying.”

This month, to highlight the importance of school attendance, Shelby County Schools launched an attendance campaign in partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team to incentivize students to show up. The focus is on 10 schools that had 10 percent of last year’s most-absent students.

Riverview wasn’t among schools targeted by this year’s campaign, partly because the K-8 school in south Memphis has made strides in recent years to curb attendance woes. Principal Latasha Harris credits a revamped school culture and increased communication with parents, many of whom live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Last year, before the first school bell even sounded, Riverview employees called parents’ phones and knocked on relatives’ doors to make sure students started the school year strong. It worked, with most students registered by the first day of school.

Riverview educators made a similar push this year, and took it a step further by throwing a “block party” in early August to get families on the school campus and get students registered.

Despite making strides with middle schoolers, Riverview has struggled with elementary attendance, prompting Harris to enlist the help of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit partner in a national dropout prevention program.

“We have a site director (from Communities in Schools) here every day, and one of her sole priorities is attendance,” Harris said. “Having someone to meet with parents and understand why they might be struggling to get their kids to school, that’s huge. It’s been extremely helpful.”

In meetings with parents, Riverview leaders learned about the need for a uniform closet, which the school established at the front office so students can access clothing if they don’t have a clean uniform.

"When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying."Miranda Moore, student

“We found that students were missing school because they didn’t have the right thing to wear, or their uniform was dirty, and they were getting called out on it in class,” Harris said. “So now we have this closet with everything you can think of — from shirts to underwear.”

Relationships go a long way in connecting students to school life, so Harris coaches her teachers to nurture a caring environment.

Jerreca Saulsberry, a third-grade math and science teacher, agrees. She says the No. 1 reason that students struggle to come to school consistently is an unstable home environment.

“I grew up in this area and had a similar childhood to many of the kids in my classroom,” Saulsberry said. “For me, teachers in school were always my safe haven. That made me want to show up. I wanted to come back to teach to create same environment.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.