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.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.


Adams 14 board rejects new KIPP charter school in district

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics Lion."

KIPP, the national charter school network, will not open a new school in the Adams 14 school district — at least for now — after board members voted against the network’s application Tuesday night.

It was a unanimous decision in which two board members who explained their thinking said the district’s situation with the state weighed heavily on their votes.

“Adams 14 is not in a position right now to be a proper authorizer,” said board member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator. “We have our own struggles. To add another school into the mix of responsibilities is tough.”

Board member Bill Hyde said he believes the district’s problems can be solved without resorting to using charter schools.

“It’s not just about this particular charter school application,” Hyde said. “It goes to a bigger issue as to what we as a community want in terms of a school system.”

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management of the district or more drastic improvement efforts. The district has spent eight years on a watchlist for low-performing schools, and the board’s reluctance to offer a new high-performing charter option for students will likely be part of the discussion with state regulators.

KIPP officials said they are planning to appeal the decision to the state.

“Families in the community have been advocating for a new public school option for their students, and tonight’s vote is a setback for the families and community members who are fighting to provide an education that is responsive and accountable to their students,” said Kimberlee Sia, CEO of KIPP Colorado Schools. “We plan to appeal this decision, and we will continue our efforts to open a new public school option for Adams 14 families.”

KIPP officials have wanted to expand outside of Denver, following some of their students, a majority of whom come from low-income families. As housing prices rise in Denver, many working class families have moved to more affordable suburbs like Commerce City, where the Adams 14 district is based. This summer, KIPP submitted an application to open a preschool through 12th-grade campus in the district.

The district had to hire a consultant to quickly put together a review process for the application and to educate the board about how charter schools operate in Colorado. Superintendent Javier Abrego then ignored staff advice based on their review, and instead asked the school board to reject the school, citing philosophical concerns with charter schools.

KIPP leaders had the backing of several parents who live in the district and send their children to KIPP schools in Denver, and of other district parents who wanted a new school option nearby. Tensions rose between parents who were in favor and teachers who were opposed.

KIPP’s charter school application had been a frequent topic for public comment at board meetings for months. Tuesday, there were fewer people in the room and only two people spoke about KIPP, both asking the board to reject the application. Teachers who are union leaders sat near the front of the room and nodded in approval as the board members made their decision.

Community advocates in the room criticized the decision. Transforming Education Now, a parent advocacy nonprofit that supports school choice, had been working with parents who support KIPP.

“Kids in Adams 14 will suffer yet again because this district has chosen to put adult needs and politics before their learning,” the organization said in a tweet.