THREE THINGS

Three things we learned about the state of school segregation in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Panelists from left to right: Daniel Kiel, Terri Freeman and Charles McKinney.

Memphis is as segregated as it is today because of a series of historical twists and turns, as well as recent decisions that deepened the racial divide, a panel of experts said Tuesday night.

About 50 residents attended the discussion on Memphis’s history and present state of segregation. The event was the kickoff of a speaker series led by the National Museum of Civil Rights MLK 50 project, Stand for Children and the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.  

Panelists were:

  • Terri Freeman, president of the National Museum of Civil Rights
  • Daniel Kiel, Memphis School of Law associate professor
  • Charles McKinney, Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College

For one Memphis teacher, the discussion was eye-opening.

“I am taking away the tremendous impact history has had on current segregation in Memphis,” said Kayleigh Bondor, a special education teacher at Hillcrest High School.

Here are our three takeaways from the discussion:

1) Fifty-six years after desegregation, Memphis schools are still highly segregated.

In 1961, 13 black students in Memphis were the first to desegregate schools in Shelby County. But like in cities across the nation, desegregation didn’t take hold the way its proponents had hoped, Kiel said.

In 1973, busing prompted the start of “white flight.”

“The response was substantial.” Kiel said. “In the time between the order for busing and the following school year, 20,000 white students disappeared from Memphis City Schools. Some moved out of the city, and some went to private schools created for them.”

“This marks the end of desegregation in Memphis,” Kiel said. “From this point on, (Memphis schools) become increasingly black.”

The pattern had potential to change but didn’t in 2013 when the Memphis city school system gave up its charter and merged with legacy Shelby County Schools. The historic merger lead to a “demerger” the following year, when six suburban towns pulled away to form their own districts. The Memphis-suburb splintering was recently highlighted in a national study on school secession.

Kiel called the merger/demerger a “missed opportunity to have a conversation about segregation.” Today, Shelby County Schools serve a majority black and poor population, while the suburban school districts remain more affluent and white.

2) Historical reverence for black teachers needs to be re-ignited if schools are to improve.

When growing up in Chicago, Freeman said, it was clear that African-American public school teachers were trusted and respected. That was true in black schools across the country before desegregation, but it’s no longer true now. And that has to change.

“When I think of the 1950s and 1960s, I think of teachers as being those who were elevated and put on a pedestal in African-American communities,” Freeman said. “We have really dismantled teaching as a profession, in part by seeing teaching as something you do for couple of years and move on.”

Freeman went on to say she takes issue with the prevalent philosophy that “anyone can teach,” demeaning the profession and disincentivizing the need to have a degree in education or master’s degree.   

“When it appears that the desire is for us to groom young white people to teach young black kids, when you create methods of now certifying teachers that don’t require higher education or a masters education, there’s a message that sends,” she said, adding, “We don’t need a revolving door.”

3) Efforts to improve opportunities stoked segregation within schools.

Recently, Shelby County Schools has set out to change the way parents and students apply into its optional schools program, which started in the 1970s as magnet programs to compete with private schools for high-achieving students.

But a reliance on standardized testing has imposed its own order on who gets in where, said McKinney, adding that standardized tests are known to be biased.

“They are used to filter students into honors programs, and that’s why the optional program in Shelby County Schools looks the way it looks,” said McKinney, who later added that he has a son in an optional program. “There are no mysteries here. The way in which our school system is structured is a direct result of segregation practices and policies.

“Want to kick up a hornet’s nest?” he added. “Go and try to change the optional programs. It’s one of the most racist programs in the country. What percent of students in optional programs are African American?”

Specifics on the optional program demographics aren’t publically available, but panelists agreed that the optional schools cater to a higher percentage of white, affluent students than Shelby County Schools as a whole, which is 78 percent black and 60 percent economically disadvantaged.

Kiel added that the optional program was created by the school system to attract families like his — white and middle class.

“Optional schools were designed to bring people like me into a school system that was bleeding white people every single year,” he said.

work ahead

With a bold school integration plan in place, Brooklyn parents begin to sweat the details

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Families of fifth graders in Brooklyn's District 15 will go through a new process to apply for middle schools after an integration plan eliminated selective admissions criteria called screens.

The fall is often filled with anxiety for families in District 15, when a high-stakes admissions process kicks off for middle schools in this corner of Brooklyn.

This year, the application season is marked with an extra dose of uncertainty. On Thursday, the city approved an entirely new middle school admissions system in the hopes of spurring integration in a district that is sharply divided by race and class.

Even families who agree with the changes in principle have concerns about whether schools are ready to implement the plan and serve a wider range of learners, if diversity will really filter down to the classroom level, and whether the reforms will be enough to fix broader inequities that, research suggests, can take their toll on children before they’ve entered Kindergarten.

“I feel positive about it, but I’m a little nervous,” said Lara Dicus, the mother of a fifth-grader at P.S. 10 in South Slope. “It’s about, how are the schools going to adjust?”

About a decade ago, District 15 began to let families apply to middle schools, rather than to assign students based on their address, provided students could also meet certain admission criteria. Most middle schools set their own rules, taking into account factors such a student’s report card grades and test scores.

The complicated and competitive process had a consequence: exacerbating segregation. Critics say parents with the time and savvy to navigate the system, or provide tutors or other enrichment activities outside of school, were able to lock in these advantages by helping their children secure seats in the highest-performing schools — which in turn helped the district attract or retain more middle-class families.

The new admissions plan completely eliminates selective admissions criteria, challenging the widely held belief that high-achieving students are best served in a school full of equally gifted or driven peers. While separating children by ability is not a unique idea in education, New York City sorts students on a scale unlike anywhere else: A quarter of the city’s middle schools and a third of the city’s high schools “screen” their applicants.

Beyond deciding to eliminate such screens, the education department has offered few specifics about how changes will play out in individual schools. For example, the city hasn’t shared projections for how the demographics at each school might shift.  

At Thursday’s celebratory announcement of the new admissions process in District 15, the the mayor and chancellor praised the grassroots nature of this bold new direction for the district. Parents, educators, and community leaders worked for a year to develop the plan and collect feedback. Yet even plugged-in parents remain in the dark about the nitty-gritty details and others appeared to be unaware of the changes afoot — challenging the notion that a critical mass of families has bought-in.

One parent outside P.S. 10 thought the whole proposal, years in the making, had been scrapped. At a nearby park, another had incorrectly heard that the changes called for students to be bussed across the district. Moms in Red Hook had no clue an admissions overhaul had even been proposed — let alone finalized.

“What I’m hearing is that parents are uncomfortable with the vagueness of the process,” said Jane Kotapish, a parent with two children in middle school and one in elementary school in the district.

About 3,000 fifth graders district-wide will go through the new admissions process starting this October. Officials will have to work quickly to spread word about the changes. For now, parents’ concerns have been mostly sotto voce, especially after a bitter integration battle on the Upper West Side captured national attention, discouraging many from speaking up.

For Anna Schietzelt, her worries are fueled by her own experience student-teaching in a city high school that struggled to meet the needs of its students, who often came to school sleepy, hungry, or coping with the trauma that the effects of poverty can sometimes inflict. She wondered whether district middle schools might get similarly overwhelmed.

“How do you get rid of poverty?” she asked. “It’s so hard to imagine here how that would work.”

The plan for District 15 aims for every school to enroll 52 percent of students who are from low-income families, learning English as a new language or live in temporary housing — a figure that reflects the district average. 

Poverty can have a profound effect on schools and students. Low-income students often start their education already lagging behind their peers in reading skills, have lower test scores on average, are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, and have less access to challenging coursework. Reform efforts across the country have consistently tried — and failed — to boost learning outcomes in high-poverty schools.

One of the few interventions that has worked, however, is increasing integration. Both racial and economic diversity can lead to higher graduation rates and better test scores. The benefits aren’t just for low-income students or those of color. Studies show more diverse school settings can help reduce prejudice and even spur more creative thinking.

But serving a range of different learners can be difficult to do well. When the learning gaps are too large, some research shows no benefits for students on either end of the academic spectrum. Other research shows that struggling students can have a negative impact on their peers.

One mom at P.S. 10 in South Slope wondered whether District 15 middle schools would just resort to sorting students into classes based on their existing academic achievement — a common practice that goes by the name of “tracking,” and can negate the benefits of an otherwise integrated schools. Students of color are more likely to get stuck in lower-level classes, while white students take advanced and honors courses in greater numbers.

“I think that’s a huge challenge,” she said, declining to be named because of her profession. “It’s good in theory. I wonder how it’s going to end up.”

She and other parents asked why the city doesn’t start its integration push sooner — at the elementary school level or even pre-K — before gaps in opportunity accumulate into disadvantages that become harder to address. Meanwhile, middle schools are often seen as paving the way towards competitive high schools, which often admit students based on their academic performance.  

“The problem is in the elementary schools,” said Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset park who helped develop the integration plan, She is supportive of the changes but worried that it doesn’t solve what she sees as the underlying problem: that some schools don’t have the resources to serve their students well.

Diversity advocates say that it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, and work can be done to address disparities in the lower grades while also moving forward with integration efforts. They also caution that concerns about school performance are often a backhanded way to suggest that black and Hispanic students aren’t as bright as the students who already fill sought-after schools. At Thursday’s press conference, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza batted down any suggestion that the quality of teaching or learning would suffer for those who currently benefit from the status quo.

“I’m going to very respectfully push back on the notion that diversity waters anything down,” he said to applause. “We are going to make sure that all students have what they not only need to learn but flourish in our schools.”

School leaders were also quick to say that they’re ready, and in fact already cater to vastly different students in the classroom.

“Teachers not only in our district but all over our city are truly amazing,” said Lenore DiLeo Berner, the principal of M.S. 51, a school that bills itself as a gifted and talented program. “It’s a bit of a myth that any school has any one type of student. Our teachers have been trained to teach all kinds of students, all kinds of learners.”

She pointed to her own school, where students with disabilities take Regents exams in environmental studies and algebra.

“We can find success with all of our students,” she said. “So, bring it on.”

That’s not to say it will be without new challenges. City data shows that some of the district’s most sought-after schools do well when it comes to boosting the test scores of low-performing students too — but other District 15 schools have struggled to push students to show gains.

That ability to move kids forward is what some parents in Red Hook said they will be looking for when it comes time to pick a middle school for their children.

Vickie Marcial said her grandson has struggled to learn how to read at P.S. 15, a school where more than 70 percent of students come from low-income families. But upon hearing about the new plan for the strict, Marcial said she will look, when her grandson is in fifth grade, for a middle school that can give him the kinds of supports she feels he lacks now — like more rigorous one-on-one tutoring after school. Although she hadn’t heard about the admissions changes before Thursday, she said giving more students a shot at their top-choice schools is a positive move.

“I think everyone should get a chance,” Marcial said. “Everything should be fair.”

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”