enrollment wars

‘We just want our kids back’: Charter leaders respond to student retention tactics used by Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Katie Kull
Green Dot Public Schools paid for a billboard along a major Memphis thoroughfare to share information about the charter operator's schools.

Carla Oliver-Harris was bewildered by a phone call late this spring from Shelby County Schools saying that her son’s high school was closing and that she should enroll her son at Whitehaven High School instead.

“I thought it was going to be a charter school,” the Memphis mom said about Hillcrest High, which will transition to a charter this fall under the state-run Achievement School District.

Oliver-Harris’ confusion only grew when a note on her son’s end-of-year report card said he now would be zoned to Mitchell High, another school in South Memphis, even though he can walk to Hillcrest and was told transportation wasn’t guaranteed either to Whitehaven or Mitchell.

“We were a bit confused and didn’t know where he was going to go,” she said.

It wasn’t until her son’s football coach called a few weeks later that she learned her neighborhood school will still open on Aug. 8, but will be run now by Green Dot Public Schools. The California-based operator was authorized last year to convert Hillcrest to a charter as part the state’s school turnaround work overseen by the Achievement School District, or ASD.

Oliver-Harris is among Memphis parents contacted this year by Shelby County Schools — still the state’s largest district but one that has lost enrollment annually in recent years — while seeking to retain students and the funding that goes with them. Hillcrest High is one of four Memphis schools previously with Shelby County Schools that are reopening next month as state-authorized charters through the ASD, bringing the city’s number of state-run schools to 31.

District leaders have increasingly blamed its enrollment woes on the growth of the ASD and say the loss of four more of its schools will cost the school system more than $20 million in annual state and local funding. This year, they went on the offense to bolster enrollment by recruiting students, reconfiguring grades in its other schools, and rezoning neighborhood boundaries.

Hillcrest High School
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hillcrest High is among schools at the center of an enrollment tug-of-war.

Some parents and school leaders charge that the district is using another tactic too — spreading misinformation.

They say the district’s opaque campaign to keep its Hillcrest students aims to shift enrollment to existing Mitchell and Whitehaven. Mitchell, about five miles away and one of the newest additions to the district’s heralded Innovation Zone, has room for about 425 more students. Whitehaven High, about two miles away, is overcrowded and one of the district’s highest-performing schools.

The campaign’s full effect likely won’t be known until closer to the first day of school, said Green Dot spokeswoman Jocquell Rodgers. Hillcrest had approximately 500 students last school year. As of early July, 110 were registered as Green Dot doubled up efforts to contact students zoned for the school. “We’ve walked in every apartment complex, knocked on doors, phone calls. We’ve texted,” Rodgers said.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said she would look into allegations about misinformation. She provided the script used for robocalls to parents at the affected schools, which said the ASD would take over operations in August. The script also offered options for moving to another school still with Shelby County Schools.

The issue was broached in an email exchange in May between Dorsey Hopson and Malika Anderson, superintendents of the two districts.

“We are unaware of any evidence to substantiate the allegations … that SCS has sent miscommunication to parents,” Shelby County’s Hopson wrote the ASD’s Anderson on May 20.

“Moreover, assertions that Hillcrest is closing next year would be unbelievable,” he continued. “The community is well aware that Hillcrest will be a part of the ASD next year. Administrators at Whitehaven did acknowledge numerous calls from Hillcrest families inquiring about the choice transfer process and space availability at Whitehaven. While this happens every year, they noted that several families indicated that they wanted to transfer because they did not want to be a part of the ASD.”

Hopson added: “We do not condone any SCS employee sending ‘misleading’ information to families but we will support school leaders’ efforts to market their schools and recruit students. I am somewhat concerned about the perception that SCS and/or its school leaders are engaging in some sort of misconduct.”

Jordan Mann, left, a former Hillcrest High School algebra teacher who is now school operations manager under Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, at the entrance of the school where staff are enrolling students for its first year under the state-run Achievement School District. Mann first alerted the charter operator that Hillcrest report cards said students were now zoned to Mitchell High School.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Jordan Mann, left, a former Hillcrest High teacher who is now operations manager under Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, talks with staff members registering students.

Former Hillcrest algebra teacher Jordan Mann, who is now school operations manager under Green Dot, said she witnessed first-hand efforts to redirect students. While stuffing student report cards in envelopes in May as an employee of Shelby County Schools, she saw notes included from the district.

“It said based on your child’s address, your child has been zoned to Mitchell High School next year. … They all said that,” Mann said.

Students in fact are still zoned to Hillcrest High. Enrolling in Mitchell High would require a transfer request and would not guarantee transportation.

“We’re not trying to say that Mitchell’s bad. We just want our kids back,” Mann said, adding she wanted to stay at Hillcrest to continue relationships with students and their families.

Percy Hunter, parent and community engagement coordinator for Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee and the pastor of Christ United Baptist Church.
PHOTO: Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee
Percy Hunter

Green Dot has tried to get the word out about Hillcrest through a number of avenues, even commissioning a billboard on Elvis Presley Boulevard that said “Welcome to the new ‘Haven for great education” with logos of Fairley and Hillcrest high schools, which are now both Green Dot Memphis schools. The suggestion came from Percy Hunter, a Fairley High alum who is the operator’s parent and community engagement coordinator and the pastor of nearby Christ United Baptist Church. Hunter said he wants people to know “Fairley and Hillcrest still exist and that a great education can still be got at those schools.”

Parents at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which also is being converted to an ASD charter through operator Scholar Academies, have been hit by a similar barrage of conflicting information before and after the two districts’ last-minute effort to collaborate sputtered in May. Now, Scholar Academies is proceeding with its plan to reopen Raleigh Egypt Middle as a charter, while Shelby County Schools has reconfigured the grades of nearby Raleigh Egypt High to attract middle school students there.

The school board’s reconfiguration plan drew a stern reprimand from the Tennessee Department of Education in April, calling the maneuvering “contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.” In its statement, the state also urged districts to “communicate accurate information to families about their choices, inclusive of the ASD, and avoid any communication that would confuse or mislead parents about the options for their children.”

At a late June meeting at the middle school sponsored by Memphis Lift, a parents organization that promotes school choice, many parents whose kids are zoned for Raleigh Egypt Middle said they had no idea the school would even open this fall.

“As far as we were told, they were closing,” said parent LaTonya Key, who found out about the charter option by chance when she came to the school and spoke with the incoming principal of Raleigh Egypt Middle.

For Green Dot’s Rodgers, she understands what’s at stake in Memphis’ increasingly intense battle for students.

“(Shelby County Schools) want to make sure the student stays (in its district),” she said. “… The reach of the ASD is widening. I don’t think people were so nervous about that when the ASD was mostly in Frayser.”

Memphis reporter Katie Kull contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about Shelby County Schools’ script for robocalls to parents.

research shows

Race, not just poverty, shapes who graduates in America — and other education lessons from a big new study

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The study landed with a gut punch.

Black men earn significantly less than white men, even when they were raised in families making the same amount. Poor black boys tend to stay poor as adults, and wealthy black boys are more likely to be poor as adults than to stay wealthy.

“Black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000,” explained a New York Times article, complete with graphics to let you follow different kids’ paths.   

“It was sobering to read,” said Ryan Smith the executive director of Education Trust – West, an education and civil rights advocacy group. “Me being a black man, obviously I’ve experienced some of the data, but to see it in black and white was tough.”

The study, released through the Equality of Opportunity Project, is noteworthy in scope, using data on millions of people born between 1978 and 1983 in the U.S. And while it focuses on their economic outcomes, the research also looks at education, where the impact of racism on black boys is also apparent. Here’s what the study tells us about schools and education policy.

Poverty is not a proxy for race when it comes to academic outcomes.

That’s clear in the data: Black students are much less likely to graduate from high school and attend college than white students with the same family income.

The differences were substantial. Whereas poor white men graduated high school about 78 percent of the time, black men whose families had the same income graduated only 70 percent of the time. Disparities for women exist too, but were much smaller.

Education policy sometimes proceeds under the assumption that socioeconomic status matters, but that race and racism — aside from their impact on family income — don’t.

This study suggests that just isn’t so.

Here’s another example: On federal math and reading exams, white eighth graders who qualified for subsidized lunch (indicating low family income) slightly outscored black eighth graders who did not qualify.

This has real-world consequences. A number of states that do not have school funding gaps between low- and high-income students still have gaps between white students and students of color, one recent analysis found.

In California, where Smith of Education Trust works, the state’s funding formula sends more money to schools with many low-income students. The idea is to get extra help for students who need it. But there aren’t additional resources allocated for black students who are behind academically, regardless of their families’ income.

“There are middle-income and upper-income African American students who are chronically underperforming and yet we’ve not created a structure to actually support their success,” Smith said. His group is supporting a bill in the California state legislature that would increase funding for a district’s lowest performing subgroup of students that doesn’t already get extra money. In many cases, that means black students.

“If those are African-American students in your state, in your districts, in your school, then we must at least have the conversation about what we can do differently,” he said.

Test scores may miss something in black girls.

The authors note a puzzling phenomenon: On average, black girls score lower on tests than white girls with the same family income, but there’s no such disparity in their adult earnings. This suggests that test scores don’t fully capture the skills of black girls.

Ironically, Raj Chetty, coauthor of this study, is perhaps best known in the education world for pioneering but controversial research on the links between test scores and adult income. (That research focused on teachers’ impact on student scores, which was found to translate into higher earnings later in life.)

The latest study doesn’t overturn the previous research, but it does raise questions about whether test scores may be less accurate for certain groups of students.

Can good schools and neighborhoods help close these gaps?

The paper points out that kids of all races do better in certain neighborhoods. “Black and white boys who grow up in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, higher test scores, higher median rents, and more two-parent households tend to have higher incomes in adulthood,” they write.

The research finds that up to 25 percent of the black-white income disparity is connected to the neighborhood a student grows up in. That suggests that ensuring families of different races live in the same neighborhood and attend school together — integration — can have a significant effect.

But it’s unclear to what extent the quality of a school makes a difference. This study relies on average test scores to define school quality, though that doesn’t actually say much about how effective schools are.

We do know that early childhood education, school integration, educational spending, certain charter schools, and better teachers can benefit students in the long run, sometimes substantially so.

list list

Here are the 50 New York City schools with kindergarten waitlists in 2018

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at the Brooklyn School of Inquiry.

It’s the most anxiety-inducing season of all: Kindergarten placement letters are out in New York City.

All kindergartners are guaranteed a spot in a city school, and almost all families that prefer their zoned school ultimately get to enroll there.

But the city’s admissions process yields waitlists at dozens of schools for a period of time every year — and this year, there are 50 schools where not all local families who applied by the January deadline could be given a spot. In all, 590 applicants were placed on waitlists, compared to 1,083 a year ago, according to the city’s admissions tally.

Here are the New York City schools with kindergarten waitlists right now:

Waitlists typically clear over the spring and summer, as families opt for schools outside of their zone, including private or charter schools, or relocate out of the city. But each year, some kindergartners are assigned to schools outside of their zone — an issue that typically affects a few crowded neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.

Half of the schools with waitlists had five or fewer children on them. Three schools had waitlists with more than 60 children: PS 196 and P.S. 78 in Queens and P.S. 160 in Brooklyn.

In a sign of just how volatile the admissions picture can be, just 23 of the 50 schools with waitlists this year also had them last year.

Some schools with large waitlists had none last year, according to a comparison of education department data from the two years. P.S. 78 in Queens has 73 children on the kindergarten waitlist this year, for example, but last year all zoned students who applied by the deadline were admitted right away.

On the other hand, some schools that placed many students on the waitlist last year were able to take all applicants this year. Last year, 43 children landed on the waitlist at P.S. 176 in Brooklyn, but this year, the school has no waitlist at all.