school segregation

University of Memphis runs the most segregated elementary school in the city. Will its middle school be more diverse?

PHOTO: Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal
In this 2016 photo, students play tubanos during music class at the University of Memphis Campus School. The university wants to add a middle school.

The University of Memphis is proposing to operate a middle school along with its existing elementary school while boosting student diversity in its programs.

The university’s elementary, Campus School, has the highest percentage of white students in the city, at 66 percent in 2017, and the lowest percentage of students living in poverty, 8 percent the same year. By comparison, about 8 percent of students in Shelby County Schools are white, and 59 percent live in poverty.

That especially matters in Memphis, where schools are more segregated than they were in 1971, when a judge used the racial makeup of schools to order desegregation. A growing body of research shows that segregated schools especially disadvantage students of color.

Remy Debes, a member of the middle school’s steering committee and a philosophy professor, presented the university’s plans for a new middle school to Shelby County Schools board members on Tuesday.

“My wife is Indian and we have biracial children and we have lots of concerns about the diversity inside Campus School. It’s not that it’s horrendous, but it’s not representative of Memphis,” Debes said. “So, the goal here has been from the get-go: How do we create a school that looks more like Memphis?”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The University of Memphis campus.

But the university’s strategies to diversify its proposed middle school have not been tried at the elementary school, prompting questions from some school board members, who have the final say if the Shelby County Schools will contract with the university.

“I understand what your intent is behind the model, but it’s hard for me to understand that if that’s not currently reflected in how Campus School is,” said board chair Shante Avant. “It’d be interesting for me to learn from your committee what your plan is for that. Because if you don’t currently have a student body that is reflective of what you’re saying you want the school to be, how would you get there?”

“Campus Elementary was much more diverse when I was there in the 70s and 80s than it is now,” added school board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “Be intentional. At that time, that first wave post-integration, they were intentionally trying to make sure they would do that.”

The university announced in March it would explore opening a middle school to build off the successes of Campus School, which often ranks among Memphis’ highest-performing on state tests. The school would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

So far, the university plans for a third of students to be children of faculty and staff, a third would come from the neighborhoods in a two-mile radius from the East Memphis school, and a third come be from the rest of the county.

The proposed middle school would give priority to students living in a two-mile radius of the campus and use the university’s existing bus service shown by the blue line. Source: University of Memphis

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in Shelby County Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff. But federal law prohibits explicit race quotas for student enrollment.


Related: Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders


Still, other schools, like the recently opened charter school Crosstown High, have attracted applicants who vary in academic standing, race, and class through community outreach campaigns.

Although Campus School is also open to university service staff who don’t make as much money as faculty, Debes said there’s room to grow in advertising the opportunity to them.

“And that’s one of the things we will work to try to disseminate information about the school — not just to the community and the county but the university faculty and staff,” he said.

“I hope that you will be very targeted in making those families aware that this is out there as an option for them,” McKissack said.

To attend the proposed middle school, students would have to meet three requirements:

  • Satisfactory behavior
  • Fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals
  • On or above grade level scores on the state’s TNReady test or MAPS, a national test on student growth.

Some school board members took issue with some of the admission requirements, saying they are too narrow to attract the diverse student body they are seeking. Debes said that’s why the school would accept teacher recommendations to explain why a student doesn’t meet one of the requirements.

“We recognize that there are lots of brilliant children out there who are looking like they’re falling below grade level precisely because their learning styles are different,” he said. “We have to make sure the parents and families understand that just because you don’t meet those three criteria on official record, doesn’t mean there’s not a chance for your kid to get into that school.”

“I don’t know if a teacher is going to give a letter for a child who has (a poor grade) in conduct,” said board member Stephanie Love.

Debes said the university would look to Shelby County Schools for advice on reaching out to families in the area. But he also doesn’t want nearby schools — such as the sought-after Maxine Smith STEAM Academy — to think the university is poaching their smartest students.

Other details about the makeup of the school include a “project-based learning” curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math where students take fewer tests and do more group work based on solving real-world problems. Funding for the school would be based on Shelby County Schools’ “student-based budgeting” model that is based on student need rather than a fixed amount for every student.

A contract is expected to be discussed during the board’s Nov. 27 work session, with a vote scheduled for Dec. 4.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

College Access

Michigan is struggling to put kids through college. So why is a promising solution stuck in first gear?

As an ambitious high school freshman in Illinois, Jasmin Wilson had a simple goal: rack up enough college credits to earn a two-year degree before she was 18.

Then her family moved to Michigan, and now that goal is out of the question. A tangle of state laws makes it hard for high schoolers to take classes at local colleges, an approach known to boost college graduation rates, even as lawmakers worry that too few Michiganders hold college degrees.

Those laws mean that students like Wilson cannot get an associate degree before graduation, unlike their peers in neighboring states.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Wilson, now an 18-year-old senior at Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “There shouldn’t be a limit on how many courses you can take. I feel like they’re limiting students.”

A growing body of research suggests that the standard U.S. educational timeline — four years of high school followed, ideally, by four years of college — is badly out of date. So-called dual enrollment provides a major boost to rates of college enrollment, college and high school graduation, and even students’ academic performance in high school, according to a review of the evidence by federal education officials.

Many districts are recognizing the appeal of dual enrollment. Earlier this week, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced plans to help more students take courses at a local community college.

But Michigan puts unusually strict limits on dual enrollment, capping the number of college courses students can take while attending high school at 10. The availability of such programs across the state is also limited by a funding system that requires Michigan’s already cash-strapped school districts to pay for dual enrollment courses, leading to gaps in access across the state.

Some education leaders are urging lawmakers to make dual enrollment easier.

“There’s a lot of positive things here,” said William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Directors, referring to dual enrollment. “We haven’t in this state caught up to the rest of the nation.”

Although the number of participants in Michigan has grown in recent years, the rate of dual enrollment remains lower than advocates would like, with fewer than 1 in 6 Michigan high schoolers taking classes for college credit, Miller said. (Thousands more take Advanced Placement classes, which can also lead to college credit.)

More than 2 million U.S. high schoolers participate today, including 81,000 students in Michigan, and that number is growing. Early middle colleges — high schools that offer college courses in-house — have also expanded.

Yet Dave Dugger, executive director of the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium, worries that the number of students enrolling in dual enrollment in Michigan could be slowing down.

Although some influential policymakers have expressed interest in dual enrollment, the idea hasn’t developed the popular support necessary to drive a major change to the deeply ingrained timeline on which American education is based.

“We’re a time-based system,” he said. “Everyone filters education through their educational experience, which tends to be 30 years behind the times.”

Dugger has spent the last 25 years creating dual enrollment programs and helping educational organizations build their own. He says it’s just common sense to allow motivated high school students to take the more challenging coursework offered in college.

And as advocates often point out, there are plenty of other perks.

By accumulating college credits in high school, students can save money on tuition, no small matter at a time when Michigan families are paying more than ever for college. The classes prepare them for the fast pace of college work. And crucially, they shorten the path to a college degree, increasing the odds that students will end up with a credential.

That fact alone might be enough to win a powerful ally in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who focused her State of the State address on Michigan’s relatively low rate of college completion.

“Dual enrollment becomes a contributor to increasing education attainment in the state,” said Doug Ross, Whitmer’s newly appointed senior advisor on higher education attainment and economic development. “As the full strategy is laid out for moving from roughly 43 percent [of Michiganders age 25 to 65 with a college degree] to 60 percent in the next decade, dual enrollment is an issue that will come on the table early in the process.”

The cap was put in place in 2005 to ensure that school districts wouldn’t be forced to pay too much for college courses. Districts don’t have to promote dual enrollment, but they can’t opt out of it, either.

The legislature has shown little interest in lifting the cap — the last effort to do so passed the state senate last year but did not pass the house. No bills introduced in the legislature this session would lift limits on dual enrollment, Miller said.

The problem that the cap sets out to solve could be fixed, in theory, with a carrot. Miller says the state should send extra funding to school districts who otherwise would have trouble making the case for dual enrollment.

But that proposal could run into trouble in the statehouse. The Republican legislature has voiced skepticism about new spending, while the Democratic governor is trying to find revenue for several major initiatives at once.

Sarah Anthony, a newly elected Democratic state representative from Lansing (her district does not include Michigan State University), is tired of waiting for people to grasp the stakes of this debate.

While lawmakers fail to come up with a solution, she said, far too few students are completing college. The effects are especially pronounced on students who, like her, are the first in their family to attend college.

“As you sit in some of these rooms, sometimes you have to step back and say, who’s looking out for students and families?” she said.