what's next?

These Memphis schools now risk a state takeover

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Hawkins Mill Elementary play a math game during class.

While Memphis mostly received good news when the state listed its most underachieving schools last week, at least five Shelby County schools appear to be at risk of state takeover.

The move, the most drastic consequence the state can impose to try to fix education, inspires dread in its targets — but studies have shown it has not been effective in raising student achievement.

Shelby County Schools and Tennessee Department of Education officials have declined to name which schools they might take over or close. But a look at the state’s new criteria for when to step in to improve schools provides some clues about which ones are under consideration.

Shelby County Schools has 11 schools that meet the state’s criteria, but that doesn’t mean they are a shoo-in for state takeover. The most vulnerable are:

  • Geeter K-8
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Northwest Prep Academy
  • Wooddale High

Geeter recently shifted into the district’s Empowerment Zone, a program to zero in on student achievement. That designation may shield it from state action, because the program has succeeded in lifting a few schools off the state’s priority list of worst-performing schools.

Six other schools that meet the criteria belong to Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which is designed to improve achievement and has done a better job of boosting test scores than state-run schools have. Because of that, it’s unlikely they would be taken over. The schools are:

  • American Way Middle
  • Hamilton High
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Trezevant High
  • Westwood High

If taken over, a school will leave the Memphis district and land in the state-run Achievement School District, which turns many of its schools over to charter operators. But in six years, the state-run district has not produced the results promised, and researchers say its schools are no better off than other low-performing schools that received no help.

Schools become vulnerable to takeover or closure, according to the state’s plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education, if they have:

  • Two repeat appearances on the priority list of struggling schools, which the state determines every three years
  • A growth score of 3 or less on the state’s 5-point scale of academic improvement, known as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

The rating of schools has been complicated by last spring’s online testing blunders. In response to the widespread snafus, lawmakers prevented the scores from being used as the basis for any state takeovers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her classroom tour of the state.

In assessing schools at risk, Chalkbeat looked at growth scores — a measure of schools’ year-over-year improvement — from the 2016-17 school year. Since those scores didn’t change much in 2017-18, the same schools would likely be on the state’s list.

Before making any decisions, the state will review other information, such as how neighboring schools are doing, how the school compares with others statewide, the percentage of students graduating, and student enrollment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said recently the state will decide on schools’ fate in the next month or so.

Any schools the state takes over will join 28 other state-operated campuses in Memphis, or about one-fifth of schools in the local district.

In planning how to improve schools, the state has vowed to collaborate more with local districts than it has in the past. That previous approach led to frequent protests, mistrust, and racial tensions as charter operators with higher proportions of white staff took over schools in black neighborhoods.

This year, state officials have visited schools on the watchlist to talk about strategies to improve.

What we know about the schools most at risk

The state already flagged American Way Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary in February as schools that needed the most help. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the state recommended forceful action. Earlier, the state recommended (but by law could not force) closing Hawkins Mill, but Shelby County Schools declined.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.

The state also recommended in February that American Way Middle join the Achievement School District. Shelby County Schools responded by moving the school into the Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, which imposes conditions such as a longer school day, signing and renewal bonuses for high-performing teachers, plus community resources for students from low-income families. That usually adds up to about $600,000 per school. The state still may take action on the school, but has not decided yet.

Geeter K-8 is also a likely candidate for state takeover, but recent changes may spare it. In February the state flagged it as needing improvement. Shelby County Schools was already in the process of transferring Geeter into the Empowerment Zone, a cluster of neighborhood schools that employs strategies such as collaboration across schools on lesson plans so teachers can learn from each other.

The Empowerment Zone uses college-student tutors to reduce the adult-to-student ratio in the classroom. This year, the district transformed Geeter, formerly a middle school, into a K-8 by adding elementary students from Manor Lake Elementary.

Georgian Hills Middle and Wooddale High are especially vulnerable to a state takeover. Neither are in the iZone, but are a part of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of closing them.

Principals at the 19 “critical focus” schools get about $300,000 extra to fund improvement plans developed with parents and staff. The state has not indicated whether or not the resulting strategies count as a strong enough intervention, but said in February the local district would lead in creating a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration with the state.

The state deemed that Northwest Prep Academy had improved enough last year to escape the priority list, but the school reappeared on the list this year because of its low graduation rate. The state has not designated Northwest school as an alternative school, but it serves students referred from other schools for behavior or academic issues. It’s unlikely the state would take over this school.

Complicating any plans for the state to take over schools are recent dismal test results from the Achievement School District. Four of the six original schools that the state took over in 2012 remain on the priority school list for their poor performance. So far, McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have stood by the state-run district, though they have conceded the district’s goals were too ambitious.

And with a new governor set to take the helm in January, the future of the district is uncertain.

Immigration fears

Chicago on Trump administration changes: ‘A sicker, poorer and less secure community’

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
A scene from an August immigration rally in downtown Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel submitted a public comment on the proposed public charge rule changes on Monday.

The possibility of tougher rules on immigration and citizenship has provoked “tremendous fear” and plummeting participation in publicly funded daycare programs and afterschool care, according to a federal memorandum the City of Chicago submitted Monday.

The Trump administration has proposed changes that would weigh participation in programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, or housing assistance when granting residency and citizenship.

The changes could be devastating, the Chicago memorandum warns.

They could affect 110,000 Chicago residents, according to the filing. One in three Chicago residents receives Medicaid benefits, which the proposed changes would affect.

Chicago and New York led a coalition of 30 cities that filed comments to the Department of Homeland Security over changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which is used by immigration officials to decide who is allowed entry and permanent residency in the United States.

“History teaches that, given this choice, many immigrants will choose to forgo public aid, which will make them a sicker, poorer, and less secure community,” according to the City of Chicago’s comments. You can read the entire document below.

Already, the city said, a group called Gads Hill that operates child care centers in Pilsen and North Lawndale has struggled to enroll children because of families’ worries about the impending rules.

Another operator, Shining Star Youth and Community Services in South Chicago, saw families start to keep children home since the proposed changes were announced.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago told the city that participation in its after-school programming also has taken a hit, the filing said.

The changes to the proposed rule do not specifically mention Head Start or any of the publicly funded child care programs. But many families are fearful that participation in anything offered by the government — from child care to health care to even food programs — would bring them to the attention of immigration authorities.

Early childhood advocates shared similar concerns at a November meeting of the Early Learning Council, an influential group of policymakers who help set the state agenda for children ages birth to 5.

“Families are very confused about the changes,” Rocio Velazquez-Kato, an immigration policy analyst with the Latino Policy Forum, told the group. “They think that by enrolling in Head start or free and reduced-price lunch at school — that it will factor against them.”

Public comment on the proposed rule change was due Monday. The 60-day public comment period is required by law before the federal government delivers a final recommendation. 

Read Chicago’s full response below.

on the move

Lack of transportation, conflicting deadlines put school choice out of reach for some, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

More Colorado students use school choice to opt into traditional district-run schools than use it to attend charter schools. Those who do so are more likely to be white and middle- or upper-class than their peers. And transportation continues to be a barrier for students who want to go somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

Those are the findings of a report on choice and open enrollment in the traditional public school sector put out by Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform advocacy group that supports greater access to school choice.

The report, “Open Doors, Open Districts,” looked at the roughly 49,800 Colorado students who attended school in a district other than the one in which they resided during the 2016-17 school year and another 95,600 who used school choice within the 12 largest districts in the state. Together, these 145,400 students make up roughly 16 percent of all Colorado students. Another 13 percent of state students attend charter schools.

Since 1990, the School Choice Act has allowed students to enroll in any public school they want, without paying tuition, provided there is room — and that the school provides the services that student needs, a sticking point for many students who require special education services.

The number of students using this system to attend school in another district increased 58 percent over 10 years to 49,800 in 2016. Roughly 6,000 of those students attend multi-district online schools.

The students taking advantage of inter-district open enrollment are more likely to be white than Colorado students as a whole — 58 percent are white compared with 54 percent of all students. They’re also less likely to come from low-income families (36 percent, compared with 42 percent of all students), to speak a language other than English at home (8 percent compared with 14 percent statewide), or to have a disability (8 percent compared with 11 percent).

“It is important to understand these differences so that policy leaders and educators can work to ensure that open enrollment opportunities are more accessible for all Colorado families,” the report said. “The underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino students and English learners suggests there may be some unmet needs in Spanish-speaking communities around inter-district choice — either in information, accessibility, or appropriate services for students.”

The report highlights two major barriers to more students using school choice.

Most districts don’t have the kind of common enrollment system that Denver pioneered or that Jeffco is rolling out each year. Most districts require parents to turn in paperwork at a particular school. Not only do districts not share the same deadlines as each other, often different schools in the same district have different deadlines.

The other is transportation. 

“Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution,” the report said. In one rural district, a group of parents banded together and hired their own school bus to take students to another district.

A bill sponsored last year by state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, would have addressed both issues, encouraging the creation of more consistent deadlines across the state and allowing districts to cross boundaries to provide transportation. That bill was defeated in the Democratic-controlled House after some school districts said it would set the stage for larger, wealthier districts to poach students.

The transportation provision was later added to an unrelated bill in the final days of the session, a move that led to a lawsuit in which a judicial decision is pending.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly, and it’s not clear how any attempts to expand school choice would fare. Both school choice and charter schools have enjoyed bipartisan but not universal support in Colorado.

By highlighting the prominence of traditional public schools in how Colorado students use the choice system, advocates hope to separate choice and the popular idea that parents should be able to find the school that best meets their child’s needs from the more divisive debate about charter schools, which critics see as siphoning scarce dollars from other schools while not serving all students.

The report recommends developing more consistency between and within districts, providing more information to parents, and removing barriers to transportation.

Districts with higher ratings, which are determined primarily by results on standardized tests, tend to get more students than those with lower ratings, but some districts, particularly in the Denver metro area, send and receive large numbers of students, reflecting that parents and students are making decisions at the school rather than at the district level.

Metro area districts that have struggled to raise student achievement are losing large numbers of students to other districts. A quarter of students who live in Adams 14, whose low test scores prompted a state order for external management, attended school in neighboring districts in 2016. In Westminster, which just came off a state watchlist for low-performing schools this year, that number was 29 percent.

Ready Colorado found no clear relationship between districts that spent more per student and districts that attracted more students — but districts with higher enrollment get more money from the state for each student, creating incentives to compete for students.

Read the full report here.