Setting priorities

Here’s what Memphians say a high-quality school should have

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Westwood High School PTA President Felecia Bean-Barnes talks about education assets during a community meeting in the Whitehaven area of Memphis.

For Felecia Bean-Barnes, curriculum is key.

A parent and president of Westwood High School’s PTA, she’s observed that some Shelby County schools offer advanced placement curriculum or courses in Japanese, for instance, while others don’t.

“We don’t have all the classes at our school that we wish she had,” Bean-Barnes told district leaders at a recent community meeting seeking input from Memphians on what makes a high-quality school.

community

Another parent at the Whitehaven-area meeting quickly chimed in. “We need a foreign language program that starts in elementary school to get these kids college-ready. … We’re trying to do 12 years of school in four years. We’ve got to get on the ball.”

The comments were gleaned during nine community meetings held by Shelby County Schools in the last week, capped by three gatherings Monday night. District staff members facilitated the sessions and documented feedback to gauge community priorities as leaders prepare to downsize the school system amid years of declining enrollment.

“We have limited resources to work with, so we have to start thinking differently about how we maximize our resources, so all our students have equal opportunities,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a videotaped message played at the start of each meeting. “That could mean closing, merging or transforming schools in order to create new high-quality options.”

A yearlong facilities study, scheduled for release this fall, will help guide the hard decisions that policymakers say ultimately must hinge on how to improve academic performance. A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions last week about how the community input eventually will intersect with that data to inform decisions about shuttering schools. But facilitators and school board members assured participants that their feedback is critical to the process. (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk.)

Some meetings drew more than 60 people, others just a few handfuls, as many participants cited engaged parents as one attribute of a high-quality school. One teacher suggested reinstituting family resource centers in all schools to provide resources and training for parents to offset challenges related to a mostly impoverished student population.

Participants defined high-quality schools based on up-to-date technology, small class sizes, retention of high-quality teachers, a climate of safety, STEM curriculum, and the availability of after-school tutoring and field trips, among other things.

Meanwhile, facilitators indicated that the district will measure the quality of schools based on three factors: student achievement, student growth and school climate.

Here are some comments shared at various community meetings:

  • “Every school needs a high-quality administrator, one that’s aware of the conditions of the school, knows the neighborhood and has a passion for what they’re doing. It starts with leadership.” —Terri Stephens, sixth-grade world history teacher at Havenview Middle School
  • “I look at test scores because I know (my daughter) needs a challenge. —Amber Currin, parent of a second-grader who participates in CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary School
  • “All schools should have optional programs. We shouldn’t create inferior schools to have better schools. They should be even across the board.” —Claudette Boyd, whose grandchild attends Melrose High School
  • “Everything starts at the top of the school with a strong administration.” — Leonard Smith, retired educator with Memphis City Schools
  • “You have to have strong teachers. You need good leadership. Quality of the teachers is a must.” — Kayla Smith, parent of students at Oakhaven middle and high schools
  • “We need stability in our school system. Many of our children come from an unstable home environment and then we’re sending them to an unstable school environment where we’re not sure whether those schools will stay open. We tell them “relax and learn,” but someday we’re going to learn that school flight is generating panic and fear.” —Vernall Smith, a graduate of Mitchell High School and grandfather of three Mitchell students

The district has invited stakeholders to share additional feedback online.

Chalkbeat reporters Laura Faith Kebede, Caroline Bauman and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”