Newcomers

With students arriving every day, Memphis seeks to join other cities with newcomer programs for English language learners

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads class at a newcomer academy that opened in 2016 in Indianapolis for students who recently arrived in the United States. Leaders of Shelby County Schools want to open a similar program for high schoolers in Memphis in the fall of 2017.

Responding to an influx of students from Central America and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools is treating them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to create a “newcomer program” for high schoolers new to the U.S.

The program for English language learners would be housed at Wooddale High School and would accept 100 students this fall. A second location is planned for the following year.

The $750,000 program is part of Hopson’s proposed budget, which the school board is expected to approve in May.

Newcomer programs have been in place for years in cities with a long history of educating immigrant students. Others like Nashville and Indianapolis have added them in recent years as their immigrant populations have swelled.

In Memphis, English learners are the district’s fastest-growing subgroup and make up about 8 percent of the student population. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but many are refugees from elsewhere.

Under Shelby County’s plan, core classes such as math, science, history and language arts would be infused with English language learning for up to two years. Students would join the rest of the student population for elective classes.

Currently, the district places newcomers in two class periods of English language learning before they join core classes alongside native English speakers — an approach that officials say contributes to the achievement gap between subgroups.

The school-within-a-school model would be more intensive. “What we want to do … is to help them fill in those gaps while they are developing a foundation in English,” said ESL adviser Andrew Duck.

The program would create a new option for English language learners in Memphis following the 2016 closure of Messick Adult Center. Before the state pulled its workforce development contract with Shelby County Schools, Messick was the district’s only ELL program for adults and students ages 16 and older.

The newcomers program also would help address concerns raised by a federal civil rights investigation launched last year into how the district treats English learners and communicates with their parents. The Associated Press reported that Shelby County Schools was among several districts nationwide that discouraged unaccompanied minors from Central America from enrolling in its schools and encouraged them instead to attend an adult learning center.

“We’ve seen kids get turned away from schools when they try to go register without any real explanation,” said Casey Bryant, legal director for Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “The closure of Messick meant that those high school-aged kids who were being turned away didn’t have any place to attend school.”

The federal investigation is ongoing and, if the district is found in violation, Shelby County Schools would have to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — or face a lawsuit.

Duck said the investigation offered “a kick in the pants” for launching the newcomers program — but that the influx of students from Central America is the bigger motivator. “… We had actually been working on this off and on since 2007 in the Memphis City Schools system,” he said.

And Tennessee’s new schools plan, submitted under the new federal education law, places a higher emphasis on how schools serve English learners, giving Memphis leaders one more reason to step up services for those students.

Officials say Wooddale High School was chosen as the program’s first site because of available space there and its proximity to Hickory Ridge, an area with one of the city’s largest populations of English learner students. The school is now at 70 percent capacity.

school choice or peer choice?

A school choice quandary: parents care more about who attends a school than about its quality, in NYC study

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo

A basic tenet of school choice is that families will choose higher-quality schools when they can, spurring schools to improve in order to compete for students. Bad schools will fail the grueling test of the market, while good ones will thrive.

Now a new study raises questions about this basic premise.

The analysis examines high school choice in New York City, where students in district schools have a bevy of options and can attend schools outside their neighborhood. But families aren’t flocking to the most effective schools — they are looking for schools with higher-achieving students.

“Among schools with similar student populations, parents do not rank more effective schools more favorably,” write researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, Jonathan Schellenberg, and Christopher Walters. “Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction.”

The result: school choice programs may incentivize schools to do more to attract students more likely to perform well, not help students learn more.

It’s a strong indictment of the theory behind school choice, though the research — like any single study — is hardly definitive. Prior studies on vouchers and New York City charters have shown that district schools generally see (small) increases in test scores when parents and students have more choices about what school to attend. Charter schools in several states have improved over time, which may be evidence of choice and and competition working.

But the study highlights some of the often-unspoken factors that drive school choice and how schools, in turn, are likely to respond.

Peers trump school quality in the eyes of families

The paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed and was released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines how families of eighth-graders chose public high schools in New York City between fall 2003 and spring 2007.

Because the city allows students to rank many district high schools, and then assigns them one, the researchers have a treasure trove of data to draw from. (The latest analysis does not examine charter or private schools.) The study then connects how students ranked schools to metrics like test scores, high school graduation, and college attendance.

It is true that better schools — defined as schools improving those specific outcomes — are ranked higher, but that seems solely due to the fact that those schools also have higher-achieving students. Comparing schools with similar students, better schools don’t get a boost in parent demand.

“Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction,” the authors write.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is not much evidence that schools that seem to do better with certain groups of kids are more likely to attract those students. In fact, schools that are particularly effective with low-achieving students tend to be especially popular with high-scoring kids.

It’s not clear which interpretation of the results is correct

There are a number of ways to interpret these results.

One, is that families value characteristics — like safety or after-school programs — besides the metrics of school quality used in this study. That said, the study includes measures like high-school graduation and college attendance, that parents and students are likely to care about.

Another hypothesis is that families and students simply don’t have good data on which schools are good.

“Without direct information about school effectiveness … parents may use peer characteristics as a proxy for school quality,” the study suggests. Indeed, there is evidence that families respond to information about school performance, but it’s unclear to what extent they would prioritize sophisticated measures of school quality, even if given that additional data.

Perhaps families are simply more concerned about peers than schools. Families may consider the types of students at a school as a proxy for school success — something that might be deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. It may also be due to biases, including racism.

This, the authors suggests, has troubling implications for policy.

“If parents respond to peer quality but not causal effectiveness, a school’s easiest path to boosting its popularity is to improve the average ability of its student population,” the paper says. “Since peer quality is a fixed resource, this creates the potential for … costly zero-sum competition as schools invest in mechanisms to attract the best students.”

Want to learn more about NYC high schools? Come to Chalkbeat’s event this Thursday on how to make the high school admissions process more fair. Also be sure to sign up for Chalkbeat’s national and New York newsletters

Sorting the Students

One in five Indianapolis Public Schools students now attend an innovation school

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Global Prep is one of the district's growing stable of innovation schools.

This fall, more than 7,800 Indianapolis Public Schools students walked into schools run by outside managers, rather than the district.

Less than three years after the IPS board approved the first innovation school, only about 75 percent of IPS students attend district-managed schools. Innovation schools now educate 20 percent of the students, and another 5 percent attend schools under state takeover — a dramatic shift that may require the district’s central office to reshape itself in the years ahead.

Innovation schools are a hybrid between traditional district schools and charter schools. They are run by charter networks and nonprofits, which have almost complete control of daily management. The operators hire and fire teachers, who are not part of the district union. And they control school hours, curriculum and spending.

But innovation schools are overseen by the IPS school board, and they are considered part of the district when it comes to counting enrollment — and test scores.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee does not have a clear goal for how many innovation schools he would like to see, he said. But he expects enrollment in innovation schools to continue growing.

“It’s a model that we utilize when we believe that it’s in the best interest of our students and our community,” he said.

The number of innovation schools nearly doubled this year, going from nine to 16. In part that’s because several charter schools joined the innovation network, including Avondale Meadows Middle School and Herron, Riverside and Purdue Polytechnic high schools. The district also converted several of its own schools to innovation status

Those schools helped drive the district’s enrollment up to about 31,820 students, according to IPS data. It’s the highest enrollment has been in five years. But the number of students in traditional schools has plummeted over the same period, falling from just over 30,000 students in 2013 to about 24,000 students this year.

The sweeping changes raise questions about the future of education institutions across the city, including whether the IPS central office will need to shrink. Instead of relying on IPS for services districts typically provide — such as special education specialists, teacher training and custodial staff — innovation schools often handle those services themselves or rely on contractors.

Several innovation schools automatically receive special education services from the district, but IPS special education services are not currently available to all innovation schools, said Brent Freeman, who heads special education for the district.

Aleesia Johnson, who oversees innovation schools for the district, said that innovation schools still rely on the district for help with administrative issues such as vetting vendors.

“We have to think differently about those schools,” she said, “because they just operate in a different way.”

The district cut central office spending significantly in prior years. But spending inched back up in 2016, and Ferebee said the district may need to hire staff to help train principals for the extra responsibility that comes with running innovation schools.

“We are probably as thin as we are going to get,” Ferebee said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that several innovation schools automatically receive special education services from IPS. Those services are not currently available to all innovation schools.