community meeting

East High opens Monday as a revamped T-STEM school. But confusion lingers on who gets to attend

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
East High School opens this fall as an all-optional "T-STEM" school for ninth graders.

With just days to go before students are due back in class in Memphis, parents and community members are still trying to figure out who gets to attend East High School — and what happens to students who are left out.

They’re holding a meeting Friday evening to try to understand long-planned changes that are nonetheless catching some families by surprise.

East High is transitioning into the district’s first all-optional school, meaning students must apply and be accepted — effectively closing the school to most neighborhood students, who will now be sent to two other high schools. The changes have been a long time coming but have created last-minute confusion for parents who didn’t hear the news or are new to the neighborhood.

They include Jackie Webb, a retired Shelby County Schools teacher whose son went to private school last year but hoped to go to East, the school in their neighborhood, this fall. Instead, her son will be among the local students sent instead to Douglass High School, four miles away, or Melrose High School, nearly three miles away.

“I decided to enroll my son into Shelby County Schools earlier this summer, believing he could go to East,” said Webb, who lives in what has been East High’s zone. “Come to find out, I can’t enroll him in East. He has to get bused to Melrose or Douglass.”

Webb plans to attend the meeting 6 p.m. Friday at Lester Community Center, where Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland will listen to parents and try to answer their questions.

It’s not clear whether a representative from the school district would be on hand to answer questions. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district had not heard such complaints from parents and had in fact been thorough in communicating with families and the community.

“From community meetings to phone calls and even extensive media coverage, we certainly have made it a priority to make families aware of the change,” said the spokeswoman, Kristin Tallent.

District leaders have said that major disruption needed to happen at East to keep the school open. In recent decades, the school’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000 students. And last spring, East made the list of the state’s 10 percent of lowest-performing schools, making it potentially vulnerable to state intervention.

Starting with this year’s incoming freshman class, East will shift to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. It will also choose students based on their academic performance, attendance, and discipline records — likely keeping out struggling students in the neighborhood.

The change drew pushback from alumni and community members concerned that the shift will hurt neighborhood students. Neighborhood students who were already attending East can stay through graduation but won’t be enrolled in the new program, and in the future, students in the neighborhood will have to meet admissions criteria to get in.

“I just moved back to the neighborhood and they are trying to send my daughter to Douglass,” Trina LaShawn said on a Facebook post. “But the way my work hours are set up I won’t be able to pick her up when school get out. She can walk from East but not Douglass.”

Sorting the Students

An Indianapolis private school touted by DeVos is adding 400 more seats

PHOTO: Provided by the Oaks Academy

An Indianapolis private school that is dedicated to promoting racial and economic integration is planning to grow by 50 percent in the coming years.

The growth, which school officials say was made possible by larger-than-expected donations, will set the Oaks Academy up to potentially bring in even more in voucher funding from the state.

The Oaks is a private Christian school with three campuses in the city’s urban core. Leaders plan to expand the school to educate 1,224 students, up from its current enrollment of 815, according to a release.

The school consistently earns top marks from the state because of students’ test scores and, unusually, has a racially and economically diverse student body. Chalkbeat visited the Oaks in 2015 as part of a series that documented how widely segregated Indianapolis schools remain decades after students began being bused to township schools.

The Oaks, which was founded in 1998, was designed to draw middle-class families with options back to the city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’ ” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

Because the Oaks enrolls a high number of low-income students, it is also one of the largest beneficiaries of Indiana’s voucher program, which gives state money to eligible low-income and middle-class families to pay tuition at private schools.

The school decided to expand after exceeding its fundraising goal of $4 million by $1.5 million, Hart said in a statement last week.

“Originally our plan was to grow to 870, but we were overwhelmed with the support of the community and interest from families,” Hart said. “We are now seeking an additional $2 million in donations to fund infrastructure, hire new teachers and make modest facility improvements to accommodate 1224 students total over the next several years.”

The Oaks has also won praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who mentioned the school in March when asked whether school choice policies should be structured to promote integration.

“I clearly think that having diversity, racial and socioeconomic measure of diversity, is a real benefit in schools,” DeVos said. “I think about a school I visited in Indianapolis, The Oaks school. The mission is to really have a wide range of diversity school economically, racially. And it’s a successful school model.”

Follow the money

Rich PTA, poor PTA: New York City lawmaker wants to track school fundraising

New York City is home to some of the richest PTAs in the country, while other schools struggle to even recruit parent volunteers.

To better understand the disparities, City Councilman Mark Treyger on Monday will introduce legislation requiring the education department to track the membership and fundraising of schools’ parent organizations. The law would require an annual report to be posted to the education department’s website.

“We need to make sure all of our kids are receiving the same level of opportunity across the board,” Treyger said.

In the city and across the country, powerhouse parent organizations raise vast sums of money to boost the budgets of schools that tend to serve wealthier students — widening the gulf between them and schools with needier students.

For example, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report this year by the Center for American Progress. At a school where just 9 percent of students qualified as poor in 2013-14, the parent organization raised almost $1.6 million that year, according to the report.

In the very same district, P.S. 191’s PTA had about $11,000 in the bank as of January 2016, according to meeting minutes posted on online. About 78 percent of its students are poor.

Some districts have tried to reduce such disparities by requiring PTAs to share their wealth or restricting how the organizations can spend their money. But such limitations are not without controversy. In California, for example, parents have pushed for their own school district rather than pool their fundraising dollars.

The bill will be introduced at Monday’s City Council stated meeting.