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.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”