One school at a time, one child at a time, impact of school closures goes beyond budgets

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Anita Smith stands with grandson Jaylan Jones (second from left) and his friends in front of Lincoln Elementary School during its last months of operation in 2015. Shelby County Schools is tracking the academic performance of displaced Lincoln students who now attend A.B. Hill Elementary.

Over the years, teachers at Orleans Elementary School in Memphis came to learn Jazmea Partee’s study habits, quirks and mood changes. Concerned whenever she missed school, they even texted her mother to check on their student.

But after Jazmea completed third grade in 2012, Orleans was closed by administrators with the former Memphis City Schools. Along with her classmates, she was moved to Lincoln Elementary, a school around the corner. In the shuffle, however, Jazmea lost track of teachers and friends, and her grades suffered.

“I hated when they closed that school,” said her mother, Shawn Partee. “It was hard for Jazmea. Everybody got split up.”

Like Jazmea, students like Jaylan Jones haven’t thrived with change. Since moving to Lincoln after his first-grade year at Orleans, he has struggled with schoolwork and conduct. “That transition was really difficult,” recalled Anita Smith, his grandmother.

Test scores at Lincoln Elementary dipped last year. Now, district administrators are targeting to close that school as well and send its students to A.B. Hill Elementary.

In Memphis, closures of underperforming schools have become an annual affair, especially in the wake of the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools. The idea behind the school closings is both to save money through consolidation and move students out of struggling schools and into better ones.

However, multiple studies show that students moved from recently closed schools don’t consistently experience test score gains. In fact, in cases such as Jazmea’s and Jaylan’s, their scores suffer.

While no specific available data addresses scores for Memphis children who have been moved due to school closings, all but one of the schools that received students from closed schools experienced significant drops in test scores. Lincoln suffered the district’s largest drop, with half as many students meeting the state’s math standards in 2013 than had in 2012.

According to educators and experts, students who are moved – and their families – often fumble attempts to navigate unfamiliar settings. They struggle to tap into resources such as counseling services, tutoring and after-school programs. Meanwhile, teachers must attempt to gauge their new students’ academic levels and then seek to catch them up with the rest of the class.

More closures

The Board of Education of Shelby County Schools is scheduled to decide March 31 whether to close Lincoln Elementary and South Side Middle schools as part of Superintendent Dorsey Hopkins’ latest plan to save money and boost test scores. Under the proposal, hundreds of other students would be pulled from at least three other schools and sent to surrounding schools. In all, the plan could affect 2,030 students.

Over the last three years, board members with Memphis City and Shelby County schools have closed 16 schools, impacting 3,555 students.

Orleans Elementary School is closed and boarded up today – one of HOW MANY schools in Memphis shuttered since 2012. Its students were transferred to Lincoln Elementary, one of two more schools targeted for closure at the end of this school year by Shelby County Schools.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Orleans Elementary School is closed and boarded up today – one of 16 schools in Memphis shuttered since 2012.

Board members say they are concerned about the well-being of students who are affected, in addition to the neighborhoods that are impacted.

“We live and die by data,” said chairwoman Teresa Jones, posing a list of concerns. “What’s happening to children that have been merged with children in the past? Are they getting better instruction? In a better facility? Are they getting the extra help that they need?”

Under the latest plan, administrators propose sending all of the impacted students to the district’s Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, a cluster of schools that have received millions of city, state and federal dollars to hire more effective teachers, add hours onto the school day, and implement other academic interventions. It’s the district’s most expensive turnaround effort yet.

“This is truly, in my mind, about student achievement and investing in neighborhoods that have been neglected for a long time,” Hopson said about the iZone at a recent board meeting. “The reality is that these kids need extra help. By combining these schools and using a framework that’s proven, undeniably working, we’re going to get them that help. We believe we will improve their educational experience and put them on track to be some of the good stories in 2025.”

While the ultimate goal is eventually to boost student test scores, the act of closing schools has unintended consequences, according to research.

A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Urban Economics tracked an unidentified district in the Northeast that closed several academically struggling schools and sent the students to schools with higher value-added test scores. The scores of students who were moved actually dipped in their new school, where many of their former teachers also were moved.

Ronald Zimmer, a researcher who worked on the study at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, notes that the district failed to rid itself of teachers at the old school who were partially responsible for the low test scores – a crucial mistake, he said.

“The key here, it was only an effective strategy if [the schools they were sent to] were dramatically better in achievement,” Zimmer said. “Otherwise, it has an adverse effect for students in the short term. It could be the lack of stability or being in the same peer environment. Our conclusion was that if you have to close schools, it’s not a terrible strategy, but you have to get them in much better schools for there not to be adverse effects for students.”

In Memphis’ iZone schools, all teachers have had to reapply for their jobs, and only top-performing teachers are hired back. During a February presentation to parents, administrators used colorful charts to show how much more their children should learn at their new iZone schools.

“We think it’s a blessing that you may be joining our schools,” Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent, told parents.

Welcoming strategies

Another study conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that many students whose schools were closed in Chicago in 2013 didn’t attend the new school they were sent to because of transportation hurdles and feeling unwelcome, said Molly Gordon, an analyst who worked on the study.

“Did they have open houses, welcome new families in?” Gordon asked. “We noticed welcoming schools got a huge influx of students. Oftentimes, families are upset because they’re losing after-school programs and support services in closed schools.”

Griffin said she was impressed that some Memphis schools held open houses for parents and teachers moving from 10 schools closed last year by Shelby County Schools. She said those welcoming strategies potentially could be replicated at schools receiving new students from schools targeted for closure at the end of this school year.

For Jazmea, who is now 11 and finishing the fifth grade, school life seems to be stabilizing again. She struggles with division in math class but is being tutored in the subject. She’s made new friends through the school’s majorette squad, and her mother is getting to know new teachers. Next year, Partee plans to send her daughter to Soulsville, a charter school across town that offers an after-school dance program.

“The biggest concern to me is having the kids be with better teachers – more teachers that care,” Partee said. “It’s difficult every time they close a school.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.