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.

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: