Trust issues

Getting immigrant students to show up at Memphis schools was already hard. Ending DACA makes it harder.

PHOTO: Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Third-grader Juan de la Cruz is welcomed back to class on Aug. 7 at Belle Forest Community School in Memphis. The back-to-school reception was organized by a neighborhood church as a show of support for students as the city's Hispanic community dealt with recent immigration arrests.

Even before President Donald Trump announced plans to draw down protections for the nation’s young undocumented immigrants, fear of deportation has been a problem within Memphis schools.

In session for more than a month, Shelby County Schools has seen a precipitous drop in attendance by students from the city’s growing Hispanic community.

“You can really feel that void,” said Terrence Brittenum, principal at A. Maceo Walker Middle School. “The lack of Hispanic students is impacting us as it relates to attendance, academics and our overall school community.”

That void started over the summer when federal agents raided several Hispanic neighborhoods as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants. Now it’s expected to grow with Tuesday’s announcement that the Trump administration will end the federal DACA program that stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Unless Congress steps in, some 800,000 young adults brought to the U.S. illegally as children — and 8,000 in Tennessee — could be eligible for deportation.

“Today is a difficult day for Latinos in Memphis and the Memphis community,” said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, in the hours after Trump’s announcement.

Brittenum and Calvo were among school and advocacy leaders who gathered Tuesday night to discuss how to work together in behalf of the city’s Latino community. The meeting, planned for weeks, was fortuitous in its timing. The gathering offered a space for education stakeholders to get their heads around changes to come with the exit of DACA.

The district has declined to say how much its Hispanic enrollment has dropped this school year, but administrators say the decrease is noticeable across many schools.

Principal Tanisha Heaston recalls a question posed by one parent who was considering enrolling her child in Treadwell Elementary School: “How will I know my child will make it home from school?”

“Fear is there,” said Heaston, whose school is home to the city’s only Spanish dual-language immersion program.

The drop in enrollment arrived at a bad time for the mostly black district, which has lost students annually to state-run and suburban school systems that have sprung up across Shelby County in the last five years.

Principals say building trust with the Hispanic community is key to getting students back in their seats. Shelby County Schools has sought to assure families that their students are safe at school, regardless of their immigration status — and that the district doesn’t share private student information with law enforcement agencies. Now, it’s trying to spread the word by partnering with Latino Memphis, an advocacy group that works with Hispanic families.

The seriousness of the problem was underscored by the presence of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and most of the school board’s members at Tuesday’s gathering at W.H. Brewster Elementary School.

PHOTO: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“It breaks my heart that we have families that are literally afraid to show up at school, to participate,” Hopson told the crowd.

Just last week, the school board went on the record in declaring its support of the district’s Hispanic students and families. And immigrant families who showed up on the first day of school on Aug. 7 were welcomed back like rock stars by church and community leaders.

Now the district is talking about training school personnel specifically to work with immigrant families and to provide tools so that they understand their rights. High school counselors also need specialized training on how to help undocumented students figure out their post-DACA options after graduation, leaders say.

Perhaps most important, leaders say, is advocating for federal legislation to replace DACA.

“It’s going to be important to hear from leaders like you that we need this,” Calvo said. “People elected to Congress need to hear what we have to say. It’s not a time to be in the back row.”

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

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.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”