insider talks

Signal Mountain leaders just visited Shelby County to learn about school secession. Here are five things we heard.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley speaks with Valerie Speakman, general counsel for Arlington Community Schools, during three days of discussions with leaders of Shelby County's suburban school systems.

Leaders from a mountain town near Chattanooga spent much of this week learning how to follow in the footsteps of suburban town leaders near Memphis to create their own small school system.

Calling their trip to Shelby County a fact-finding mission, the mayor of Signal Mountain and a small committee of citizens met with leaders from the towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown, all of which just completed their third year of operating their own school systems.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from Hamilton County Schools and is home to three of the district’s higher-performing schools. If the town opts to exit, it would do so under the same state law used by Memphis-area suburbs to leave Shelby County Schools in 2014.

The law, which was pushed by the suburban leaders, allows towns with 1,500 or more students to form a district if the majority of its citizens vote in favor of the change. It doesn’t require the approval of the district left behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

For Signal Mountain, the circumstances are somewhat different than for Shelby County in 2014, which followed the 2013 merger of the mostly black and low-income Memphis City Schools with the whiter and more affluent county school system.

“We don’t have that impetus for change,” Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley said Wednesday about the Shelby County merger. “(This exploration) started with a group of parents expressing concern about the way our schools are going.” 

The committee will take their findings back to Signal Mountain, just in time for a public meeting next week. A full report of the committee’s findings will be released in the fall.

Chalkbeat sat in on all three days of this week’s discussions. Here are five takeaways:

1.  Signal Mountain leaders are asking how — not if — the town should secede.

While they stressed that they were on a fact-finding mission to decide whether even to pursue a pullout, much of the exchanges focused on the nuts and bolts of how to take that path.

Committee members were eager to hear what exactly the process was for the Shelby County de-merger and what it looked like to start their own districts — from teacher rights to employee benefits to transportation services.

Committee Chairman John Friedl specifically wanted to know about how to retain teachers should Signal Mountain exit the Chattanooga district. In Shelby County, each municipality kept all teachers who wanted to stay in order to avoid potential lawsuits. Their leaders encouraged Signal Mountain to do the same.

The committee was appointed in January by Signal Mountain’s Town Council and has invested months into figuring out if a new school district is viable. One parent member, Amy Wakim, has crafted a hypothetical budget that Howley said has gotten positive feedback from the State Department of Education. 

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Tom Cullough, John Friedl and Melissa Wood listen to municipal leaders.

While committee members focused on getting into the nitty gritty of forming Signal Mountain’s own district, Howley stressed that the town is far from heading toward a vote.

“This is a huge, huge decision,” he said. “… The minimum thing that comes out of this is that we can go share what we found with (Hamilton County school leaders).”  

2.  They heard glowing reviews of Shelby County’s 3-year-old municipal districts.

From academic gains to expanded course offerings to wider community support, the positives of local schools under local control were touted by a parade of municipal leaders.

“Education has become much more personalized,” said Arlington Superintendent Tammy Mason. “And buy-in from the local community has had a direct impact on student achievement.”

“The housing market in Collierville is going nuts,” added James Lewellen, his town’s manager. “The way people look at Collierville has changed. … We’re not doing this just to govern our own schools, but to change the way children are educated in Collierville.”

Other leaders described spikes in population and home prices as a result of the locally controlled school systems.

“This is a pristine example of if you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped to lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

After the first year of operation, five of six municipal school districts welcomed mostly positive state test scores. Districts in Arlington and Millington also saw their ACT scores go up, although college entrance scores in Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett stayed stagnant or decreased slightly last year.

Each municipality was represented at this week’s talks by their school superintendent and a town leader such as the mayor or city manager. No one from the Memphis-based urban district was invited.

3.  Local control comes with a price tag. Every municipality has raised taxes since the breakaway.

Starting a school district from scratch isn’t a cheap endeavor, municipal leaders acknowledged.

“Every one of the municipalities has raised their taxes … with tremendous support from community because people see dollars going directly into their schools,” Pickler said.

Most of the increases have been for property taxes, but some towns have upped their local sales taxes too. Bartlett recently approved a 35-cent property tax increase, in part to fund expansion and renovation of Bartlett High School at a projected cost of up to $60 million.

Facilities have proven to be one of the more expensive, and contentious, issues between the municipalities and the district they broke away from. In Shelby County, the facilities followed the students, meaning that new districts inherited school buildings in their city limits if a majority of its students lived in that city. That meant inheriting some aging buildings with significant maintenance needs. (Shelby County Schools is also dealing with deferred maintenance needs that total about $500 million.)

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
From left: Signal Mountain committee members Amy Wakim and Tom Petterson and attorney Phillip Noblett.

“We inherited a high school where the roof had leaked so badly for so long, there was mold was growing inside building,” said David Roper, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, the most socioeconomic diverse and cash-strapped municipality. “It wasn’t like we took over sparkling clean buildings … and (their condition) had not sat well with Millington for some time.”

4.  Leaders bristled at any suggestion that their pullouts are racially motivated.

The breakaway movement has taken a beating this month from researchers at EdBuild, who released a long-awaited national report labeling the breakaways as secessions and characterizing the trend as a new form of school district segregation.

That notion riled leaders from the Shelby County municipalities, who say the 2013 merger left many of their residents concerned that their schools would get lost in Tennessee’s largest district.

“It’s not about white or black, rich or poor,” said Pickler. “It’s about a community saying we want something better and are willing to invest our time, our talent, our energy.”

Lewellen of Collierville urged Signal Mountain to record and document every proceeding, in case charges of racism or classism arise.

“People try to rewrite history, and tell you why you did what you did,” Lewellen said. “People say there are underlying motives for it. No there wasn’t. … We wanted to self-govern.”  

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
“If you build it, they will come,” said David Pickler, the long-time chairman of the county’s legacy schools who helped lead the exodus of towns from the new Shelby County Schools.

When the municipalities first announced plans to break off, the newly consolidated Shelby County Schools sued, charging that race was the motivation for leaving. A federal judge dismissed the suit and a settlement was negotiated.

Friedl expressed concern that a pullout by Signal Mountain would further isolate the community from the rest of Hamilton County, which is poorer and more racially diverse than the mountain.

“Our kids will have a better educational experience if they are exposed to more diversity than they currently are,” Friedl said. “We can’t reach down off mountain and pull kids up. … We can’t manufacture diversity.”

Shelby County leaders suggested open-enrollment policies as a way to avoid the perception of “walling yourselves off.” Any student living in the county can apply to attend a municipal school district free of charge. But there are caps on how many out-of-district students that municipalities can take, and those open-enrollment policies could change.

5.  Messaging is key.

Concerns about perception and communication strategies reverberated throughout the meetings, but a two-minute litany of advice from Collierville’s Lewellyn especially perked the ears of Signal Mountain leaders.

“Control your message,” he told them. “And get the hell off social media. Social media will kill you. If you lose your message, it will kill you.”

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

Lewellen warned that the message can get lost if people who aren’t involved in the process begin to speak in behalf of your town.

“We had to get dirty and say, ‘You don’t speak for us; shut up. That’s not our motives or what we’re trying to accomplish,’” Lewellen recalled.

When Collierville elected its first school board, Lewellen hired consultants to coach members about the importance of messaging and how to speak with the news media. He called it “the best thing (we’ve) ever done.”

“We talked about the importance of acting presidential, not acting like dysfunctional bunch of spoiled children. Show some leadership because the world’s watching right now. When you go in a public meeting, sit up straight, act presidential. Don’t fight it out in a public meeting; fight it out elsewhere. Be good leaders in this.”

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

data points

A new report highlights Indiana foster children’s struggles in school. But is the problem even worse?

PHOTO: Getty Images

A new national report shows teenagers and young adults transitioning out of foster care are falling behind in graduating from high school, pursuing college, and finding jobs.

It’s a trend that holds true in Indiana, too: Young adults who have been in foster care graduate at slightly lower rates than their peers, are employed at lower rates, and rarely receive financial help to pay for educational expenses, according to the report released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But one Indiana advocate says he believes the outcomes are even more bleak — and upcoming state data could show children in foster care struggle a lot more in school.

The numbers from the foundation’s report are based on a self-reported survey of young adults still connected to foster care supports. Brent Kent, CEO of Indiana Connected By 25, a nonprofit that supports young adults in the transition out of foster care, worries those results don’t represent the broader experiences of all children in foster care.

“They only survey the kids they can reach,” Kent said. “Those who are homeless, transient, or in shelters — they don’t get surveyed.”

Kent cited research showing more dramatic gaps, and said the report underscores the need for better state tracking of educational outcomes for children in foster care. The state is expected to release a report in the spring that for the first time breaks out data on students in foster care, including examining their test scores, discipline rates, and graduation rates.

The instability and disruptions of foster care — separating children from their families and placing them in temporary living situations — can cause children to fall behind in school and struggle to catch up. Children who have been in foster care are also more at risk of becoming homeless or being unemployed as adults.

Indiana serves about 32,000 children in foster care, according to federal data — a number that has been recently rising in part because of the opioid crisis.

The state’s education agencies and Department of Child Services will also work on plans next year to better support children in foster care in schools.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting.