Optional Schools

How one Memphis school is grappling to attract high-achieving students while also educating those left behind

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kia Bolton, a freshman at the T-STEM Academy at East High School, explains what she's learning in the Memphis school's new diesel program.

When parent and longtime Binghampton resident Lee Evans heard about the plan last year to require students to take a test to enroll at the iconic East High School, he didn’t understand why that meant some students in the neighborhood could not attend.

Evans, an alumnus, worried they would drop out if they couldn’t attend East. He also worried the neighborhood would lose its longstanding connection with the school.  

“You can’t throw the whole haystack away to find the needle,” he said in a recent documentary about years of changes in Binghampton schools.

PHOTO: Lawrence Matthews
Lee Evans, a parent and longtime Binghampton resident, was featured in a documentary about school changes in the Memphis neighborhood.

Evans’ concerns have been echoed by others in the neighborhood. As the Memphis district creates new programs to improve academic performance and attract students, some parents, students and other members of the community worry that neighborhood students won’t benefit from the changes.

The historic school, in one of the most visible spots in Memphis along Poplar Avenue, is the epicenter of a model that Shelby County Schools leaders want to see replicated across the district — especially for long-neglected schools in impoverished neighborhoods. East High had dwindling enrollment and low test scores. To reverse the tide, district leaders replaced the school’s traditional curriculum with one focused on transportation.

In its first year, all freshmen were required to test to be admitted to East, which left some families worried they would not be eligible to attend. Neighborhood students who scored high enough were given priority.

Under new requirements this year, students enrolling in the diesel program will no longer have to submit test results, a move made to keep more neighborhood students at the school. They will need a C-average, a satisfactory behavior record, and fewer than 15 tardies or absences at their previous school. Studies have shown that students from low-income families often do not score well on standardized tests.

Students enrolling some components of the program, such as aviation, still will be required to take a test for admission.

The new admissions policy allowed most of the eighth grade students from Lester Prep, a neighborhood school in the state-run Achievement School District, to attend East High this year. Of the 125 freshmen this year, one-third live in the neighborhood, according to the district.

Concerns and skepticism remain

Yet even with this change, some observers are concerned.

Memphis created specialty programs, known as optional schools, in the 1970s to retain high-achieving and white students during school desegregation. But this is the first time Shelby County Schools has created an admissions process that caters to two different kinds of students for a single program.

Charles McKinney, who recently wrote a book about Memphis’ influence on the broader African-American struggle for equality, is still troubled by the message the admissions process sends.

“My vision would not include this first step of removing students currently in the building. In a really substantial way you’re saying you can’t build an excellent school unless you have high-achieving students. And that’s fundamentally flawed,” the Africana studies chair and history professor at Rhodes College told Chalkbeat. “The district’s job is to build educational excellence for all children regardless of their academic status.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jacob Milan, a freshman at East’s T-STEM Academy, shows off what he has learned so far in the school’s diesel program. He hopes to go into video game design, but likes learning about transportation science.

The new rules for entrance into East High School “are a step in the right direction,” he said. But if the district plans to replicate the model in other schools, the process should be more inclusive of students from poor families and students of color.

“The district is mostly black and brown kids, but those numbers aren’t reflected in these elite educational spaces,” McKinney said. “It’s not that those students don’t exist, it’s that we’ve added a number of significant barriers for students who are smart but happen to be from poor families.”

This isn’t the first school the district has restructured to attract more students. It is modeled after Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a middle school that is expected to be a feeder school for East, about two miles away. The district closed Fairview Junior High School in 2013 and reopened the building as the new academy focused on science and technology and required all students to take a test as part of the admission process.

The result was a middle school that quickly became the most sought-after in the district and achieved some of the highest scores on state tests. The white student population grew to almost half and just 11 percent of students are from poor families. Before the transition, the former school had all black students and 92 percent were living in low-income households.  

Lischa Brooks, East High’s executive principal who formerly led Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, said her continued leadership was contingent on the school including more students who may not be great “test takers” but otherwise would thrive in the new programs at East.  

“Instead of lowering our expectations, we have people there every day to support our students,” said Brooks, a 1991 graduate of East High. “We’re going to show you can do it.”

Supporting the school

Shelby County Schools has heavily invested in the school since announcing the changes in 2016, including giving laptops to all students to take home, providing high-tech engines and trucks for students to practice on, and exploring a massive athletic field renovation. More than a dozen trucking and manufacturing companies have partnered with the school to provide job shadowing and training, including Indiana-based Cummins, a global manufacturer that chose East as the site of its first American technical education program. Students can earn job certificates, including a private pilot’s license through the FedEx Flight Academy simulator lab.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lischa Brooks, executive principal at East’s T-STEM Academy, addresses business partners at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the school’s diesel program.

“I could tell everything was new. Who doesn’t want to go to a new school?” said Kia Bolton, a freshman whose mother graduated from East and decided to send her child there instead of a private school because of the new diesel program.

“I heard from my mom that East was falling,” said Bolton, who attended an optional program last year at Snowden School. “Memphis needs to change and this is just part of the change… This is the perfect place for this to happen.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said transportation programs like the one at East will be a game-changer for students who live in poverty.

“I can think of no better opportunity than take kids who come here – even kids who don’t want to go to college – and learn a marketable skillset so they can take care of their families and change their circumstances in life, and break those generational cycles of poverty,” he told a group of business leaders this week who are partnering with East High.

Some feel left behind

In the first year after the school’s transition last year, students in the higher grades were allowed to stay and finish out high school there. But ninth graders were required to test into the specialty program, which enrolled 89 freshmen — 11 shy of the school’s goal. Other ninth graders were rezoned to schools in other neighborhoods.

Altogether, enrollment dropped to about 350 by February compared to around 500 the year before.

A local filmmaker has documented the stories of some neighborhood teens who feel excluded from the transformation taking place at the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Filmmaker Lawrence Matthews, educator Tim Green, and Bruce Elementary School Principal Archie Moss discuss a documentary about years of changes at schools in Binghampton.

Tray, a student featured in the documentary, “The Other Side of Broad,” said he was not allowed to register in August of last year. (Broad refers to the Memphis street that separates a redeveloped area and the rest of Binghampton, which has many families living in poverty.)

Tray, whose name was withheld in the documentary, said his motivation dissipated after he was not allowed to stay at the school.

“I didn’t want to go to school no more.” As a student from a poor family, Tray said, “you don’t know how much I went through to even get here. And for y’all to throw me out, I got to start all the way over.”

Filmmaker Lawrence Matthews, a graduate of Germantown High School, equated the transformation to “educational redlining,” a play off of the term used to describe racially discriminatory housing practices. He said Tray dropped out of school soon after he interviewed him for the film last winter. Memphis has the highest rate in the nation of young adults not in school or working.

And even though the recent changes to East’s admission requirements include more students, “there’s still… children who were affected by what happened,” he said.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.