unified enrollment

As Memphis parents struggle to find information about schools, one parent group is calling for a simpler enrollment system

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A Memphis Lift rally in 2017.

Memphis parent Leisa Crawford didn’t have time to look through dozens of websites and zig-zag hundreds of miles around town to find a school for her child.

So she relied on word-of-mouth.

“When you live here in Memphis … you don’t go on the website,” she told members of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift earlier this year. “We heard about KIPP, Snowden — OK, we’re going there. Or it’s a neighborhood school and we don’t even look past that.”

Parents have found it difficult to get information about schools because there are so many types to choose from compared to 20 years ago. So Crawford and dozens of parents like her are calling for a simpler way to access information about the more than 200 schools in Memphis.

Memphis Lift third annual parent summit
  • What: Parents in the Memphis area and beyond will gather to talk about education issues including unified enrollment. Panel discussions will include local district leaders as well as parents from Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Washington, D.C. to share their ideas.
  • When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
  • Where: Perea Elementary School, 1250 Vollintine Avenue

They hope a process called “unified enrollment” will help them make sense of their choices and get their children into their favorite school. In unified enrollment, each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent. Often, information about schools is included on the application website.

Memphis schools have been segregated for decades. Currently, parents who are white, well-connected, and affluent have a better chance of getting into the best schools. They have more time to research, and so are more informed about school offerings, quality, and application deadlines.

But parents from low-income families, who are mostly people of color, often have less flexible schedules because lower paying jobs do not offer many opportunities for parents to take off from work to look for schools. This means they often miss school application deadlines — and better schools tend to fill up long before then.

“Over the years, we’ve talked with parents and grandparents who are frustrated with their neighborhood schools and are drowning in the process to enroll their children in high-performing schools,” said Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift’s executive director.

“They know their babies are not getting the education they deserve, but parents can’t always find a solution,” she continued. “The truth is, when parents can’t get access to quality schools, then real school choice doesn’t exist.”

A handful of cities see unified enrollment as a way to solve that problem, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. The program in Detroit never happened because of a toxic political environment, poor planning, and bad timing. Newark’s got off to a rocky start, but enjoys almost unanimous support from parents who use it.

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 moved completely online in 2018.

Simplifying how parents enroll their children in Memphis schools is already in progress. Shelby County Schools now allows parents to apply and transfer to schools online — including its sought-after optional schools that require students to score well on tests. The district enrolls about 80 percent of Memphis public school students; the other 20 percent are charter schools or schools run by the state.

Unified enrollment has been floated twice before in Memphis — once in a 2015 report commissioned by the Achievement School District, and again during meetings last year , between Shelby County Schools and its charter sector. But talks haven’t gone far.

The 2015 report by the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice included interviews with school leaders, education advocates, parents, and philanthropists, and said the city is ripe for unified enrollment.

National philanthropies have widely supported unified enrollment because they want traditional districts and charter sectors to collaborate on the process, and not compete with each other for students. To avoid claims of bias, some cities have brought in a third-party to manage the system.

Critics say unified enrollment unfairly helps the charter schools that otherwise wouldn’t have as big a platform to advertise their programs. Supporters say the benefits of unified enrollment outweigh the issues. Though many policymakers have called for changes in their unified enrollment systems, few have called to scrap them entirely.

Shelby County Schools’ application process would be combined with charter and state-run schools, which is a tough sell because the district sees those schools as competitors. School board members said as recently as this summer that charter schools are a significant financial burden that state lawmakers should help alleviate.

Still, district leaders’ interest has grown in recent years.

One of Shelby County Schools’ own, Sharon Griffin, has taken the reins at the state-run district. Griffin is known for her collaborative leadership. Her new role could help bring more cooperation between the state-run district and the local district and make unified enrollment more likely. But this is just one of many thorny issues for the two districts to sift through, including sharing student information, and managing crumbling facilities.

Last year, Shelby County Schools was more open to unified enrollment as part of a larger effort to educate parents on their choices, and even sent out a survey to charter operators to gauge interest.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Natalia Powers

“There is some interest,” said Natalia Powers, who oversees community engagement for the district, during a meeting last year on the issue. “Of course there are some questions about who would manage it, the funding, and all the logistic implications that go along with that. There is interest on both ends to have conversations about what that could look like.”

Ultimately, she said the parent’s interest should be top of mind as leaders consider a unified enrollment system.

“It’s not about the school leader,” she said. “It’s about ease and accessibility to parents.”

The change could help school operators too, said Carpenter, the parent advocate. Schools could track parent preferences more easily and give operators a better idea of how many students they will enroll. But the real winners would be parents, she said.

“Access and choice are different,” she said. “We have choice but we don’t have access to choice.”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.


Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.