Roll call!

As opening bell rings, thousands of Memphis students are yet to register

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
A sign points the way to a registration event inside the headquarters of Shelby County Schools.

It’s not uncommon in Memphis for parents to wait until the first day of school to register their students.

That scenario played out again on Monday as some 6,000 students were signed up for Shelby County Schools, bringing total enrollment to about 71,000 thus far.

The numbers are still far short of the 90,000-plus students anticipated to attend the district’s 141 traditional schools. (Another 13,000 students are expected at 51 district-authorized charter schools, which handle their own registration.)

It’s also down from last year, when about 74,000 kids were registered before the opening bell rang. Despite an extended registration drive that began in May and frequent back-to-school events throughout the summer, only 65,000 students had signed up before the start of class this week.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called late registration the district’s biggest challenge to kicking off a new school year.

“Every second that a child spends trying to register after the first day is time that child is not in the classroom,” Hopson said after touring seven schools on opening day.

Enrollment determines the amount of per-pupil funding the district receives from local, state and federal governments. It also impacts hiring. Shelby County Schools now has 98 teaching positions left to fill, about the same as this time last year. Leaders of many other Tennessee districts are trying to fill positions, too. In Nashville, the need is especially great for math and special education teachers.

Leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school in Memphis. For one, there’s confusion about zoning and choices in an increasingly splintered education landscape, which includes the state-run Achievement School District.

This year, fear of arrest is another reason. School leaders have sought to assure immigrant families that they’ll be protected when bringing their children to school, even if they don’t have authorization to reside in the United States. Memphis is among cities where federal immigration and customs agents have conducted raids over the summer.

Schools with large populations of Hispanic students have been impacted, though district leaders could not provide numbers on Tuesday.

“We are trending at about 80 percent of projected enrollment,” said Terry Ross, principal of Kingsbury High School. “We are making calls and sending robo calls to the families that have not shown up for registration.”

counterpoint

Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here

By the numbers

Enrollment is up in Tennessee’s largest school district for second straight year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

After several years of steady decline, Shelby County Schools is continuing an upward trend in student enrollment.

About 111,600 students attend schools in Tennessee’s largest district, up about 2 percent from last year and higher than projected enrollment, according to district numbers.

That includes about 15,300 students enrolled in charter schools overseen by the local district, who now make up about 13.5 percent, a slight uptick from last year.

The increase could signal a growing trust in public school options in Memphis and that recruitment and early registration efforts are continuing to pay off. Last year was the first year the Memphis district gained students since six suburbs exited the district to create their own school systems with about 34,000 students.

However, enrollment in the state’s district for low-performing schools dipped for the second year in a row to 10,622 students. The Achievement School District, which mostly operates in Memphis, has lost about 2,000 students since 2016 as schools have closed and money for school improvement efforts has dropped off.

Note: The numbers are taken from each district’s attendance on the 20th day of school, which leaders use to determine any staffing adjustments to match a school’s student population.

Sharon Griffin, the Achievement School District’s chief, told Chalkbeat that she focused her efforts this semester on restarting the district’s relationship with the neighborhoods its serves, and that she is hopeful to see gains in enrollment throughout the year.

“Most of our schools have met their projected enrollment, but we have one or two elementaries that are struggling,” Griffin said. “Part of that is due to the fact that new charter schools and options that have opened up in neighborhoods we’re in, where there’s not enough kids in the neighborhood.”

Five charters schools opened this year as five others — a mix of district-run and charter schools — closed.

Notably, Shelby County Schools’ charter sector is growing faster than the district. The number of Memphis students attending charter schools overseen by the district increased 5.8 percent this year, while enrollment in district-run schools increased about 2 percent. Shelby County Schools did not provide a statement or an official for comment.

Nationally, the average charter school enrollment has increased from 1 to 6 percent of students between 2000 and 2015, according to federal data. That year, Tennessee charter schools enrolled 3 percent of students.

In response, the local district has looked to charter schools for recruitment strategies in an increasingly competitive environment. Over the summer, Shelby County Schools doubled down on recruitment and registration efforts by sending officials to grocery stores, libraries, summer camps, the Memphis Zoo and community centers — and has even hosted block parties throughout the city. The district also opened its online application two months earlier than last year to encourage parents to register sooner.

Those efforts resulted in 70 percent of expected students to register for school two weeks before school, which was double from the previous year.