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

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing:

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”