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.

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.