enrollment wars

McQueen tells Hopson to share Memphis student information with charter operator

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

Tennessee’s education chief has sided with a charter operator in the ongoing tug-of-war between Shelby County Schools and the state’s Achievement School District over student contact information.

Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday to immediately share the information requested by Green Dot Public Schools. She said the district’s refusal violates a new state law by withholding information that charter operators need to recruit students and market their programs.

“This is the only way to enable and support parents in making truly informed decisions about their children’s education,” McQueen said in a letter to Hopson.

Sharing student information would help to level the playing field in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has aggressively sought to stem the exodus of students to state-run charter schools, most of which were once locally run before the state intervened due to chronic low performance.

Green Dot’s five state-authorized Memphis schools have contributed to that drain, and Hopson’s administration has pulled back on accommodating charter operators’ requests for information. The district contends that such sharing would violate federal student privacy laws, but McQueen said that’s not the case.

The commissioner’s stance sets up a possible legal battle between Shelby County Schools and the state.

“We are in receipt of the letter and will be reviewing the basis for the Commissioner’s response to determine next steps,” said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

The state’s directive also could have implications for other districts like Nashville’s, which have received similar requests from charter operators.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Green Dot executive director Megan Quaile

Earlier this year, state lawmakers sought to address the tug-of-war in a sweeping overhaul of the state’s charter school law. One provision requires local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request.

Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Tennessee, said she was pleased with the commissioner’s position and hopes that Shelby County Schools will comply.

“Our interest is making sure our communities are well informed,” Quaile said. “(The student directory information) is a vehicle by which that can happen.”

You can read McQueen’s full letter to Hopson below:

admissions maze

It’s now easier for siblings to attend the same NYC school. Here’s how that could affect transfers, gifted programs and diversity.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students learn how to read a number line at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a gifted school that is aiming for greater student diversity.

The education department has quietly expanded an admissions preference to siblings of some older students, continuing a push to make it easier for families to transfer schools.

Starting in the 2018-2019 school year, students applying for pre-K or kindergarten at schools that include middle and high school grades will receive priority if they have a sibling who will attend the school for at least one more year. Before the change, preference was given only to students who had siblings in fifth grade or below.

The number of families impacted is likely small since only about 140 schools enroll students from kindergarten through middle school or high school. But the policy could change the calculus for parents angling for a spot in competitive gifted programs and other highly sought after schools — and make it harder to meet school diversity goals.

The education department says it expanded the admissions priority partially in response to the number of transfer requests received from parents who would like their children to attend the same school. (The city did not provide a tally of such requests.)

“This change was based on community feedback and enrollment trends, and allows for more families with multiple children in school to have greater consistency and continuity in the elementary school admissions process,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen wrote in an email.

It’s the latest in a shift in approach to school transfers, which once were notoriously difficult to receive. The previous administration argued that transfers should be limited to extreme cases — including serious safety concerns, medical issues, or long commutes — to minimize disruptions to schools and students.

By contrast, the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio has expanded the circumstances under which students can switch schools. In 2016, the Panel for Educational Policy decided that parents could request a transfer if their child “is not progressing or achieving academically or socially,” leaving it up to education officials to make a decision in each case.  

The change in sibling priority will only affect a small number of families who have children with large differences in age — and schools that span multiple grade bands. But those schools can be among the most selective, such as The Children’s School in Brooklyn, and the Manhattan School for Children on the Upper West Side.

While the new rules could make logistics easier for some families, it may have other consequences.

About 17 of the affected schools have gifted and talented programs, such as New Explorations into Science Technology and Math,  K-12 school in lower Manhattan that is also known as NEST+M. Robin Aronow — a consultant who founded School Search NYC, which helps families navigate the admissions process — said that giving more students a preference could limit the already scarce number of seats available in those programs. (Siblings will still have to earn qualifying scores on entry tests.)

“It’s one more factor into the equation,” Aronow said. “It does impact other people trying to pick up those seats.”

By limiting the number of slots that are open to new families, the change could also make it tougher on schools that are aiming for greater student diversity. For example, gifted programs are starkly segregated: Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide. Some gifted programs, such as Brooklyn School of Inquiry, have joined city integration efforts by reserving seats for students who are low-income or meet other criteria.

In most cases, the minimum number of spots available through the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative will stay the same, according to the education department. But low-income students may face stiffer competition for the seats that fall outside the program, with more slots possibly accounted for by siblings.

“It makes it harder for families to get in, and the desirable schools are not particularly diverse,” said Laura Zingmond, senior editor at the school review website InsideSchools.  “I can’t see how that fosters diversity.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to more clearly describe how the city’s Diversity in Admissions program could be impacted by the expanded sibling preference.

charter expansion

See who wants to open a charter school in Memphis in 2019

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A student at work at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

Fewer applicants are vying to open charter schools in Memphis and one of them will seek to convert religious schools to publicly funded charters.

Ten charter organizations applied to Shelby County Schools ahead of the April 2 deadline to open 18 schools in 2019. That’s down from 14 applicants last year, and the school board only approved three.

The most prominent among this year’s applications are nine schools that would be managed by a new organization led by Christian Brothers University president John Smarrelli. New Day Schools would convert the sites of private Catholic schools into charters. If approved, it would be the first such conversion in Memphis and represent a new strategy to obtain public money after private school tuition vouchers failed to be approved in the state legislature. Eight schools would be kindergarten through eighth grade, and one would be seventh through 12th grade.

Five of the applicants already run schools in Memphis, either under Shelby County Schools or the state. The others would be opening their first charter school. (See the bottom of this story for a map of proposed neighborhoods.)

New this year are online access early in the approval process and a public comment period through April 27. You can access all charter applications here.

Shelby County Schools has the most charter schools in Tennessee, which are publicly funded schools that are privately managed by a board of directors. The Memphis district now has 51 charters that educate about 15,000, or 14 percent, of its students.

This year is the second under a more rigorous application process since Shelby County Schools doubled the size of its charter office to beef up monitoring.

These applicants will learn by the end of August whether they’ll get the green light from Shelby County’s school board:

  • Aspire Public Schools seeks to open Aspire Coleman Middle School in Raleigh to explicitly “distinguish” the charter’s existing middle school program from its elementary. The application harkens back to a tiff between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its state turnaround school. The new school, if approved, would allow the state to create a new school that would be under local oversight.
  • Aster College Prep seeks to open a fifth-through-eighth-grade college preparatory school in Orange Mound. It would be led by Teshanda Middleton, a fellow with Building Excellent Schools, a national charter school incubator.
  • Blueprint Adovah is a new charter organization and seeks to open a projects-based learning high school in South City.
  • Capstone Education Group seeks to open its third school in Memphis, but it would be the first under Shelby County Schools. Its two schools are under the state-run Achievement School District, which has taken over about two dozen city schools and handed them over to charters. The group did not specify which neighborhood the proposed middle school would be located in but noted it would focus on college preparatory courses.
  • Freedom Preparatory Academy seeks to open its sixth school as a K-8 college preparatory campus in Sherwood Forest.
  • Green Dot Public Schools seeks to open a K-8 school in Whitehaven as a feeder school to Fairley High School, a charter overseen by the state. The California-based charter organization operates four schools under the state. One of them was authorized by the state Board of Education, the first in the state after Shelby County Schools denied their application in 2016.
  • Harvest International Academy seeks to open its first Memphis school in Parkway Village, where teachers would facilitate discussion and learning instead of lecturing. They would also include more cultural content that is relevant to their students. The elementary school would be led by Denise Wilson, a teacher with Shelby County Schools.
  • Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE), the city’s first charter school, seeks to open an elementary school focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Memphis Merit Academy would serve K-8 grade students in south and southeast Memphis. The school would be led by Lakenna Booker, a Building Excellent Schools fellow who formerly worked in Shelby County Schools, KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools, according to her LinkedIn profile.
  • New Day Schools, operated by Christian Brothers University president Smarrelli, hopes to convert nine campuses of the soon-to-be former Jubilee Catholic Schools Network in Whitehaven, South Memphis, Orange Mound, Midtown, Hickory Hill, Frayser, Downtown, Binghampton, and Berclair. None of the schools would keep their religious teachings.