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.


In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.