Student Privacy

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

The sharing of student information is at the center of the latest squabble between Shelby County Schools and state-authorized charter schools — making it more important than ever for Memphis parents to know what’s at stake.

Charter operators want the data so they can notify families about their options and recruit students to their schools. But local district leaders don’t want to share their students’ names, addresses, and phone numbers. One board member called the effort “predatory” tactics to take students away from Shelby County Schools.

This week, state officials stepped in and sided with charter operators. Based on a sweeping charter law that went into effect in July, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to cooperate.

For Beverly Davis, who heads a parent-teacher organization for several schools in Whitehaven, the prospect of charter operators canvassing her neighborhood is exasperating.

“It’s like a bill collector calling and you have no choice but to take their call,” she said. “We should be able to refuse a call from (charter operators). We already know they’re here. They’re on every corner.”

Danny Song sees it differently. The leader of Believe Memphis Academy, a charter school opening in 2018, he says families should be able to learn about all the schools available to them.

“It’s about equal access,” he said. “Prior to this law, we kind of had to guess where our students live.”

Here’s what you should know about student information laws and policies — and why it’s important:

Some student information is accessible by the public.

Known as “student directory information,” this basic data can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. Anyone can ask for and receive it under the federal student privacy law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. It’s often used for lists like graduation programs, sports rosters or honor rolls. Vendors also can obtain this info to offer products and services such as class rings or yearbooks.

This is the information that Tennessee charter schools have sought to canvass neighborhoods and recruit students — and that Shelby County Schools has refused to provide.

For Shelby County Schools, student directory information is defined as:

  • name
  • address and email
  • phone number
  • date and place of birth
  • major field of study
  • participation in officially recognized activities and sports
  • weight and height of members of athletic teams
  • date of attendance
  • degrees and awards received
  • most recent previous school district or institution attended

A lot of information is not publicly accessible.

That includes grades, transcripts, student course schedules, health records, student discipline files, class lists, and education plans for students with disabilities. Only “need-to-know” people such as teachers, parents and administrators have regular access to this kind of information.

Sometimes, however, local school districts grant access to government agencies, researchers, school accreditors or juvenile justice officials. Such entities must agree to the district’s policies for protecting student privacy.

The current debate is over student directory information.

California-based Green Dot Public Schools, a charter operator with five Memphis schools, asked Shelby County Schools in July for some student directory information, which already is public under federal law.

Shelby County Schools refused Green Dot’s request earlier this month. District leaders said the new state law only applies to its own district-authorized charter schools, not to state-run charter schools like Green Dot’s.

(The local district’s first refusal to provide student data to the state-run Achievement School District in 2015 was also for student directory information.)

Feeling queasy? You can opt out.

Shelby County Schools is required to send a notice to parents at the beginning of each school year about how student information is used. Parents have the option to leave their contact information out of the student directory, or other such lists.

Or, you can write a letter requesting that your student’s directory information remain private. Write to either of the addresses below:

Shelby County Schools
Student Records Department
160 S. Hollywood St.
Memphis, TN 38112

Shelby County Schools
Department of Attendance and Discipline
Shelby County Schools
2800 Grays Creek
Arlington, TN 38002

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.