changeup

Enrollment rises in Shelby County Schools for first time since suburban split

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michelle Edwards instructs fourth-graders at Bruce Elementary School, which has a hundred more students this year. The classroom was one of seven empty ones last year at the Memphis school, compared to just one this year.

Every year since the massive 2013 merger of schools in Memphis and Shelby County, enrollment for the consolidated district has dropped.

Most precipitous was the whopping 34,000 students who left the new Shelby County Schools in 2014 as six suburban towns formed their own school systems in a shakeup known as the “de-merger.”

Another 11,000 students were siphoned off gradually by Tennessee’s turnaround district, which has taken over low-performing Memphis schools annually since 2012.

But this school year, for the first time since the merger, the shrinkage stopped — and even reversed course a little.

Enrollment for district-run schools is 92,400, up by 2,000 students, according to preliminary numbers provided by Shelby County Schools. It’s a modest but serendipitous gain for a district that is Tennessee’s largest but was bracing for another small decline.

Add in charter schools, and the total enrollment is just under 107,000, a 2 percent increase from last year. (Charters make up a fourth of Shelby County Schools. They are public schools that are privately managed. All of the totals are based on the 20th day of the school year and are still being finalized.)

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson calls the increase a significant victory, especially considering that the district started the school year behind on enrollment. The higher student count already has translated into $7.6 million more in state funding than expected, he said.

“Just to be able to say we’ve stopped the bleeding this year and actually be on the trajectory to increasing attendance speaks to the work that’s going on in our schools,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

District leaders hope this year’s enrollment starts an upward trend after years of losing students.

The decline was not new. Under the former Memphis City Schools, fewer and fewer students were attending public schools in the years leading up to the merger.

Although it remains to be seen whether the uptick can be sustained, this year’s reversal was no accident. Shelby County Schools has worked feverishly to attract and retain students as the city’s educational landscape has splintered and the climate has grown friendlier to school choice.

The district invested $150,000 toward marketing and training principals to sell their schools through a campaign known as “Retain, Recruit & Reclaim.” The effort takes a page out of the charter school playbook on recruiting students to their classrooms.

"This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students."Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students,” Hopson said. “There’s a lot conversation in Memphis about choice. And we want to make sure our families and constituents know we have great choices also. That’s something to be proud of.”

Bruce Elementary saw the largest jump in enrollment among district-run schools. As a result, just one classroom sits empty at the midtown school, compared to seven last year.

About half of its hundred new students came from Carnes Elementary, which closed in May. The rest were drawn by extracurricular activities or experiences during this year’s summer learning academy, said principal Archie Moss.

“Constant recruitment is a part of the job,” Moss said. “You have to sell what’s so unique about your school.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The former Raleigh Egypt Middle School is back to housing middle schoolers under Shelby County Schools, not the state-run Achievement School District and its charter operator, Memphis Scholars.

Hopson’s administration also cites the Achievement School District’s enrollment decline as one reason behind the growth of Shelby County Schools. The state’s turnaround district paused on school takeovers last year and closed two of its charter schools, sending about 350 children elsewhere. And when its state-run charter in Raleigh moved across town, most of those students transferred to locally run Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, Hopson said.

An estimated 150 students came district-wide from the new summer learning academy, according to Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations.

“We strategically extended invitations to all students, even private school students, for them to see what Shelby County Schools has to offer,” Ray said.

Enrollment in Memphis’ charter schools increased from 13,900 to more than 14,400, or about 4 percent, based on preliminary numbers. That brings charter school enrollment to 13 percent of students in Shelby County Schools.

Hopson said the overall trend has potential to continue — if the district can also continue to improve its academics.

“We don’t just want to be trying to poach numbers and run the score up,” he said. “We want to make sure these kids are coming back to and they’re afforded high-quality options.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.