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.

sorting the students

‘Why are we screening children? I don’t get that’: Chancellor Carranza offers harsh critique of NYC school admissions

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza

New York City’s schools chief expressed a fundamental critique of the school system on Wednesday, arguing that sorting students by ability is “antithetical” to public education.

“I think the very fact that we’re talking about screening is an issue,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said at a press conference in the Bronx. “Why are we screening kids in a public school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids.”

A large chunk of the school system Carranza is running operates exactly that way. In New York City, about one quarter of middle schools and one third of high schools “screen” students which means they select for admission based on factors like test scores, interviews, attendance, grades, or artistic talent. Several renowned high schools — the “specialized” schools that include Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — only admit top scorers on an entrance exam.

Carranza’s comments reflect his interest in integrating schools, as academic sorting also means that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in many of the city’s selective schools. They also may signal that he’s on a collision course with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has not exhibited much enthusiasm for sweeping changes to the city’s schools — and with affluent city parents who see selective schools as a condition of their participation in public school system.

The education department did not say Wednesday whether Carranza planned to introduce new policies to reduce the number of schools screening students. Spokeswoman Toya Holness said he would continue to support ongoing work with superintendents to promote alternative admissions methods.

“As Chancellor Carranza has said, we are committed to equity and excellence for all students in New York City and central to that work is making the admissions process fairer for families,” she said.

Screened schools proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though a small number have existed for decades. According to data compiled by Sean Corcoran of NYU Steinhardt, less than 16 percent of school programs screened students for academics in 2002; by 2009, it was more than 28 percent.

Proponents say those schools allow top students to access a more rigorous curriculum than is possible in a school with students of mixed ability, and they encourage wealthier families to stay in the public school system — and bring their political and financial capital along with them.

But a Chalkbeat analysis in 2016 detailed how screening has led to extreme academic sorting. Over half of the students who took and passed the state eighth-grade math exam in 2015 were clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. Meanwhile, nearly 165 of the city’s roughly 440 high schools had five or fewer ninth-graders who took and passed the state math test.

This, in turn, contributes to segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines. Low-income students of color are less likely to earn passing scores on state tests and may have more challenges navigating the city complicated admissions rules. The New York Times published an analysis in 2017 that shows as admissions methods get more competitive, schools become increasingly white and Asian.

When asked about the city’s intense academic sorting a few weeks into his tenure, Carranza said he wanted to tackle the problem.

“That is not acceptable,” he said during an interview with Chalkbeat. “And as I wrap my head around the data, those are conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my colleagues.”

Mayor de Blasio was reluctant to make more than incremental changes to those systems in his first term. Officials eliminated an admissions method that benefited students who could attend open houses and added a “blind ranking” element to some admissions systems to increase fairness.

But on Wednesday, de Blasio appeared to back Carranza, who is in his second month on the job.

“We’re certainly going to look at the screened schools because that’s something that deserves to be evaluated,” de Blasio said.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Sorting the Students

Another integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools is met with some support, but also familiar concerns

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A parent spoke in favor of integration plans for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools at a Tuesday Community Education Council meeting.

The education department on Tuesday presented yet another proposal for integrating Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, drawing both support and concern from parents.

Under the latest proposal, every middle school in District 3 would offer a quarter of seats to students who have low test scores and report card grades, and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch — a commonly used proxy for poverty. Since race and class are often linked to academic performance, the proposal could integrate schools on a number of measures.

The district has gained nationwide attention for its integration efforts, which have drawn heated pushback from some parents who worry their children will be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

But many others have applauded the push for change in a diverse yet starkly segregated district — including a number of local principals. On Tuesday, five school leaders stood in support of pursuing integration plans.

“This is a move towards diversity, towards equity, and it’s a great thing,” P.S. 84 Principal Evelyn J. Lolis told the crowd. “The choice is yours.”

The district’s 16 middle schools don’t have attendance zones. Instead, students currently apply to the schools of their choice, and most schools set admissions criteria based on factors such as an interview, attendance, or test scores.

District leaders originally proposed only considering student test scores in their integration proposal. Just last week, they presented two alternate proposals that look at a combination of test scores, report card grades, and whether a student attended a school with many other needy students.

The new plan was presented after some raised concerns about the plan not taking into account low-performing students who attend less needy schools. This latest proposal considers whether an individual student is considered poor — rather than the demographics of his or her entire elementary school. At high-performing West End Secondary School, there would be a 13-point increase in the number of poor, struggling students who are offered admission — up from only 5 percent.

The plan didn’t quell all of the parent complaints, though the evening lacked the fireworks of earlier meetings. Some wondered whether schools will be able to serve more struggling students in the same classrooms as higher performing students, and how schools will support those classes. Though diversity has generally been shown to benefit students, Andy Weinstein, a parent at P.S. 84, pointed to studies that showed negative effects when students were mixed by ability levels.

“The research suggests it won’t work and in fact may backfire,” he said. “I think mandating academic diversity and taking a one size fits all approach is a disservice.”  

Community Education Council member Genisha Metcalf echoed the concerns of other parents who said that the district’s plans ignore some of the highest-needs schools. A simulation of the latest proposal shows that many schools with lower test scores would remain essentially unchanged.

P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a K-8 school, would actually get more low performing and poor students, according to an education department proposal — from 68 percent of students to 70 percent. Community Action school would go from having 64 percent poor and struggling students, to 63 percent.

Metcalf said the district should focus on providing those schools with much-needed resources.

“I think we’re conflating some issues. Equity is providing all schools with equal opportunity, equal access to resources,” she said. “Equity is not taking a few students from the highest needs schools and sending the message that we need to shuffle kids out of their community.”

For each integration proposal, the education department says more families would receive an offer to a more preferred middle school choice than under the current admissions system. Under the latest proposal, about 113 families — about 5 percent of the total — would not get matched to a school they chose, compared with 78 families last year.

The education department’s goal is to have a final plan in place by June, when families start the middle school selection process.