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.

election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls vow to invest in schools, but skirt enrollment crisis

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor and former police board chair Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”