Optional Schools

Inequities of ‘tent city’ would persist online under plan for applying to Memphis’ most popular schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools' central office in 2016 in Memphis, where parents have camped out every January in recent years to apply for select optional schools. The application process will move completely online in 2018.

The application process to get into Memphis’ most popular schools will move completely online in January, but with the same inequities.

That’s a problem for school board members.

Administrators have been gathering parent feedback for months about the optional program in Shelby County Schools. They presented their findings Tuesday to school board members.

Bottom line: Parents who weighed in like the application system that’s now in place and, for now, the plan is to stay the course as the process moves online. The plan is awaiting final approval from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

In recent years, the district has used a hybrid approach in which it fills 80 percent of slots on a first-come, first-serve basis. The other 20 percent are decided through a lottery.

But that first-come, first-serve approach created a monster in the form of “tent city,” a days-long campout every January on the lawn of the district’s central office, preventing parents with inflexible schedules from signing their kids up.

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding their spot at “tent city.”

This January, for the first time, the district won’t take paper applications, effectively ending “tent city.” But moving the first-come, first-serve application completely online isn’t solving the equity concern either because of the Digital Divide, the gap in Internet access for low-income families.

“We’re still going to have equity challenges,” said board member Kevin Woods.

About 60 percent of the district’s students come from low-income families, in which many parents work more than one job and without flexibility to accommodate the time-sensitive application, or the resources to go online.

The district is attempting to mitigate those challenges. Assistant Superintendent Joris Ray said computers will be accessible to parents at every school, as well as the district’s parent welcome center, and its central office. The application also can be completed on smartphones.

The city’s optional schools were created in the 1970s to attract and retain high-achieving students and stem white flight following efforts to desegregate Memphis schools. The program now serves about 12,000 students in 46 schools, according to its director, Linda Sklar.


Here’s the optional school that has Memphis parents camping out in January


Shelby County Schools gathered parent feedback about the program’s application process during informational meetings this fall attended by about 500 parents and through online surveys submitted by about 800 people. Options included moving completely to a first-come, first-serve system, moving completely to a lottery, or keeping the current hybrid system, with a possible change in proportions.

About 40 percent of those surveyed favored the all first-come, first-serve system, which Sklar said was surprising. It was unclear how many of those responses were from parents who already have students enrolled in an optional school. About 30 percent called for a hybrid.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said the equity concerns should trump parent responses.

“If you go to White Station, Maxine Smith, of course they want the line, because they’re the ones who have benefitted from the line,” she said. “Let’s be honest around that. That’s not equity.”

integration push

‘Be bold’: Advocates, lawmakers call on New York City to go further on school integration

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Advocates rallied at City Hall on Thursday to demand anti-bias training for teachers and culturally relevant education for students.

As New York City tries to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its schools, it must do more to make sure every school is welcoming to students of all backgrounds, advocates said Thursday before a hearing on the city’s diversity plans.

To make the point that the city has overlooked what actually happens inside classrooms at diverse schools, advocates pointed to an anti-bias training for 600 teachers that was funded in this year’s budget. Advocates had expected the training to take place before school started — but, three months into the school year, it still has not, they said.

Without such trainings and teaching materials that reflect students’ backgrounds, schools cannot become truly integrated, said Angel Martinez, the mother of three children in Harlem.

“It’s not just about putting black and brown children into predominantly white classrooms,” Martinez said Thursday outside City Hall at a rally organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice. “That’s not diversity. That’s just a color scheme.”

An education department spokesman said the anti-bias trainings will build on other initiatives already under way to build more culturally responsive classrooms. One of the groups that will lead the anti-bias trainings said they would begin in January.

After prodding from advocates, the de Blasio administration in June released a plan to boost diversity in the city’s schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. At Thursday’s City Council education committee hearing, lawmakers said the plan’s proposals are too small-scale and its goals too modest.

Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx faulted the city for not mentioning segregation or integration in its plan, opting instead for “diversity.”

“I worry that we’re white-washing the historical context of racial segregation,” Torres said. “It’s not only about words. It’s about a proper diagnosis.”

He urged officials to “be bold” and eliminate the admissions policy that lets “screened” schools select students based on grades, attendance, and other factors. The city’s plan does do away with an admissions policy that gave an edge to students who attend a school open house. Black and Hispanic students were less likely than their peers to benefit from that policy.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said the education department does not plan to create more screened schools. But, when pressed, he declined to say whether selective schools exacerbate segregation.

“I think it depends on the context,” he said. “But I do think it’s an issue we would do well to address.”

Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn also called for changes to the high school admissions process. Although the system allows students to apply to schools outside their own neighborhoods — offering the potential to circumvent residential segregated — students still end up largely sorted into different schools according to race, class, and academic achievement.

Lander said the city should consider a “controlled choice” model, which would factor student diversity in admissions decisions while still letting families choose where to apply. The city recently established such a system for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

“We could have that ambition all across our high school system,” Lander said.

Wallack, the deputy chancellor, said the city’s plan is essentially a starting point. He pointed to a 30-member advisory group that is tasked with evaluating the city’s diversity plan, crafting its own recommendations, and soliciting ideas from the public. The group’s first meeting in Monday.

“These are initial goals and we set them out as a way of measuring our progress in some of this work,” he said.

devos watch

DeVos calls America still ‘a nation at risk,’ cheers GOP tax plan

PHOTO: ExcelinEd
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks Thursday to the National Summit on Education Reform meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. About 1,100 education leaders from 40 states attended the two-day summit.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearkened back Thursday to the landmark Reagan-era report indicting America’s public schools and declared that not much has changed. Today’s education system is still putting the nation at risk, she charged.

Speaking in Nashville at the National Summit on Education Reform, she rallied education leaders to expand “school choice,” took swipes at teachers unions and Democrats, and spoke up for her boss’s campaign to overhaul the nation’s tax structure.

DeVos’s 20-minute address drew a standing ovation from most of the 1,100 people attending the 10th annual summit hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, of which DeVos once served on the board.

She used the occasion to encourage influencers — from lawmakers to faith leaders — to fight for options that give choices to parents, flexibility to teachers, and personalized attention to students.

And borrowing a quote from Mark Twain, she assured the friendly audience that she will lead the charge from her perch at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” said DeVos, the subject of a viral report in Salon that she was expected to resign soon. “I’m not going anywhere! In fact, I’m just getting started!”

As the nub of her speech, DeVos referred to “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report released under then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell that, in many ways, was the impetus for the modern education reform movement. The report decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public education and said America’s schools were failing to prepare students for a competitive workforce.

“We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk,” said DeVos, citing the middle-of-the-pack performance of U.S. students in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. When it comes to student achievement, America is being outpaced by nations like China, Germany, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, she said.

“This is unacceptable. This is inexcusable. And this is truly un-American. We can — we must — do better,” DeVos said.

With the Republican tax plan hurtling toward a vote in Congress, DeVos praised it as the right change at the right time, despite concerns that the current proposals could constrain the ability of state and local governments to levy their own taxes, which could affect spending on schools.

“Our nation’s broken tax system is well overdue for comprehensive reform,” said the Michigan billionaire. “And I am so encouraged that, with the president’s leadership, leaders in Congress are poised to finally do something about it.”

DeVos lauded learning experiences tailored to the needs of students in settings that are chosen by parents. She gave examples of students who succeeded at charter and virtual schools and students who used tax-credit scholarship programs to attend private schools with public money. She gave a shout-out to Illinois for passing a private school tuition scholarship tax credit and to New Hampshire for efforts to pass similar legislation.

“Millions of kids today, right now, are trapped in schools that are failing them,” she said. “Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos visits with students in mechatronics classes at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This was DeVos’s first visit to Tennessee as education chief, and she preceded her summit appearance by touring a career and technical education program on Wednesday at Oakland High School, a traditional public school in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville. On Thursday, she heralded students in those tracks as “fully engaged” in learning that eventually will help them land jobs in healthcare, engineering or automotive technology.

“I think we’ve really done a disservice to young people to suggest that the only path to success is a four-year college or university,” she told Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam during a Q&A following her address. “We need to change our language and encourage young people to find the areas that most interest them.”