table talks

In Memphis, two competing school districts came together to learn how to play nice. It didn’t work.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.

In Memphis, it’s no secret that the city’s two school districts don’t always get along. Just last week, the traditional district, Shelby County Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District, launched in 2012 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, were fighting over rights to students’ contact information.

What’s less well known is an attempt at detente by a kind of intergovernmental marriage counselor — a private consultant brought in behind the scenes to create a better working relationship between the two districts.

The effort, brought to light in emails obtained by Chalkbeat, halted in May when the two sides weren’t able to agree to terms.

The emails paint a picture of conversations with representatives of both districts following more than a year of talks moderated by Phil Vaccaro, a managing director of Parthenon-EY, a Boston-based consulting group. Vaccaro and Parthenon-EY had worked with Shelby County Schools in the past, and his work moderating the discussions was paid for by philanthropists, not taxpayer dollars, according to two sources who declined to be named, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

“We have been spending a lot of time behind the scenes trying to have a better relationship and clear the air with a lot of issues,” SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the meetings.

The heart of the work was a seven-page accord outlining shared “rules of engagement” as well as recommendations for how to move forward — a document that ultimately was not adopted.

The “rules of engagement” touched on a laundry list of contentious issues between Shelby County and the ASD, from the student contact information challenge to abetting accusations of “misinformation” about school performance.

The document also offers suggestions for improving relations going forward. One proposal outlines rules for how and when each side should communicate with each other — often in writing. Another part details an intricate set of agreements, new policies, and shared “toolkits” aimed at smoothing over another communications minefield: the tricky matter of how each district talks to families that they are trying to recruit to attend their schools.

The sides even attempted to work together on the previously contentious process of how the ASD decides which Shelby County schools should be converted to state-run charter schools. In the past, local leaders have protested these decisions, urging parents to choose SCS-run schools instead of ASD-run charter schools. The new “rules of engagement” would have had them talk together about which schools the ASD would take over before the decision was made.

Hopson and ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson confirmed the meetings took place. Both downplayed the collapse of the talks, saying they learned from the process and are moving forward with some points, even though they didn’t commit to the full “rules of engagement” document.

Hopson said he stepped back from the conversations following the state’s decision this summer to overhaul and downsize the ASD’s staff to curb costs. “I think that, given some of the changes and turmoil that the ASD has been going through, we kind of wanted to stand back and see what would happen with the ASD,” he said.  

“We’ll certainly be open to collaboration and discussion [in the future],” he added.

Anderson said the process was helpful, especially in establishing lines of communication between the two districts about decisions that affect each other. “We reached agreement on several key issues that were already implementing together, which I think is good,” she said .

Hopson said the two parties had unofficially moved forward with guidelines about recruiting students. He did not elaborate on what exactly they’d agreed to, but the document outlines ways for the two sides to coordinate their communications with parents in order to avoid what it calls “misinformation.” In a city with too many schools and too few students, recruiting practices have caused squabbles in the past.

“The recruiting guidelines were reasonable,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We could just do them rather than just have a big commercial about it.”

Hopson and Anderson also both pointed to another reason they had no need for a formal memorandum of understanding: Their disagreements over sharing student information, they said, were now a moot point because a new state law, passed this spring, requires local districts to hand over student data to approved charters.    

But it’s that very law that has the state and the Memphis school district back in the boxing ring. Charter operators and state officials say the contact information is guaranteed to them by the state law. Shelby County board members insist that handing it over would violate federal student privacy laws.

Vaccaro declined to comment on his work in Memphis.

Chalkbeat could not confirm which philanthropists supported Vaccaro’s work. One email obtained by Chalkbeat said that one meeting between SCS and ASD officials was held at the office of the Hyde Family Foundations. A Hyde official declined to elaborate. (The Hyde foundation is one of Chalkbeat’s funders. You can see the full list of our supporters here.)

You can review the full memo and proposed “rules of engagement” below.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”