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.

desegregation dilemma

Silicon Valley’s school integration paradox: More black and Hispanic students get to college — and get arrested

PHOTO: Thomas Hawk / Creative Commons

New research on schools in the heart of Silicon Valley comes to a familiar conclusion: Poor black and Hispanic students get a leg up academically by attending a less segregated school.

But the results come with a significant downside. Those students who left their hometowns to attend wealthier schools in places like Palo Alto were also more likely to be arrested.

The study, which was conducted by Columbia professor Peter Bergman and has not been formally peer-reviewed, speaks to both the promise of integration and the complicating factors — including discrimination — that can dampen its effectiveness.

“Policies that aim to integrate schools … could reap long-run benefits in college enrollment,” writes Bergman, who himself attended public school in Palo Alto. “These policies should simultaneously consider programs to mitigate the potential risks for participating students as well.”

Bergman examined an initiative created after a 1985 lawsuit settlement required several northern California school districts to allow a small number of students from Ravenswood, a largely low-income district, to transfer to more affluent schools in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. (Technically, the program can be used in both directions, but only two students have ever transferred into the less-affluent districts.)

Since the program included a random lottery, Bergman was able to compare the outcomes of students who won a spot versus those who applied but did not.

The results were fairly dramatic. Using data from 1998–2008, the study finds that students who got the chance to attend the more affluent schools were 10 percentage points more likely to go to college.

These results were driven by enrollment in two-year colleges, and the effects were largest for boys.

This is consistent with older research on integration programs, which have been shown to boost test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and adult income for students of color.

Bergman was also able to link students who transferred school districts with their adult arrest records. Here, the results were more discouraging: The program increased the likelihood a student would be arrested by about 5 percentage points, with an even greater impact on boys and black students.

The rise in arrests was due to driving- and drug-related offenses outside the students’ hometowns, and there was no increase in violent crime. This suggests that the arrests may have less to do with any changes in criminal behavior and more to do with students doing more driving — and having more run-ins with police — in wealthier areas, where they had made connections or were attending school.

“Lurking in the background is definitely this idea of racial profiling,” Bergman told Chalkbeat. “[If] you’re driving a beat up Civic in Palo Alto and you’re minority, you really stand out — it’s all Teslas around here.”

Another potential factor: cops in affluent areas have more time and resources to prioritize traffic stops and drug enforcement.

“The Palo Alto police [are] probably facing a lot less baseline crime, so they have a lot of time on their hands,” Bergman said.

Still, the study can’t identify the cause, or explain the consequences for students, such as time in jail.

The research also doesn’t wade into other key questions about this type of integration program, including how it affects students who remain in the poorer, racially segregated schools.

It’s unclear why students who participated saw those academic gains. Research on older programs has found that the academic benefits of integration seem related to increases in school spending, potentially driven by the presence of families with greater political sway. Indeed, in this case, the more affluent California districts generally had greater resources and lower student–teacher ratios.

New layer

Tennessee cuts ribbon on its first charter school under State Board of Education

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Principal Jonas Cleaves cuts the ribbon at Bluff Hills High School's opening day ceremony. He is surrounded by students, faculty and leaders of Green Dot and the State Board of Education.

With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”