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.

integration conversation

What happened when Denver prioritized enrolling low-income students at some affluent schools

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Creativity Challenge Community second graders close their eyes and collect their thoughts during a 15-minute mindfulness class in 2016.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools approached its most affluent schools with an idea: What if, after enrolling all of the students who lived in their school boundaries, they prioritized filling their remaining open seats with low-income students from other neighborhoods?

The goal was to increase socioeconomic integration in a gentrifying city where housing patterns have exacerbated a familiar problem: At some schools, very few students qualify for subsidized lunches. At other schools, nearly all do. And there aren’t enough schools in between, even though some research shows all students benefit when schools are integrated.

Six elementary schools with poverty rates far below the district average signed on to the idea. They were joined last year by Denver’s largest and most sought-after high school, East High, where hundreds of kids compete each year for freshman spots.

The results have been mixed. While the prioritization made little difference in diversifying the student population at some small elementary schools, it had a bigger effect at East, where every low-income eighth-grader who applied through Denver’s school choice system for a spot in this year’s freshman class was admitted, said Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services. At smaller schools, a limited number of open seats and a lack of transportation to and from school hindered the results, he said.

The small-scale pilot program is one of the strategies being reviewed by the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a committee comprised of community leaders whose task is recommending policies to drive greater socioeconomic integration in the city’s schools.

Questions remain about the efficacy and equity of expanding the pilot. Among them, said the committee co-chairwoman, Diana Romero Campbell, is whether the responsibility to integrate Denver’s schools should fall solely on its low-income students — or whether more affluent students should share the burden of traveling outside their neighborhoods for the sake of integration.

“It really is, ‘What are the incentives that are needed?’ ” said Romero Campbell, who is president of Scholars Unlimited, a local nonprofit organization that runs after-school and summer learning programs. “…If you make it a big mandate, does that disincentivize people and does it become busing all over again? The general consensus is that’s not what we want to do.”

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, in each elementary school boundary.

In 1973, Denver Public Schools became the first school district outside the South ordered by the Supreme Court to desegregate through forced busing. By the time the district was freed from the order in 1995, tens of thousands of white students had left city schools for suburban and private ones. At the time, Denver Public Schools had about 64,000 students.

The district has tried over the past decade to attract students back, and enrollment has climbed precipitously, as has the city’s overall population. Today, Denver Public Schools educates about 92,000 students, three-quarters of whom are students of color and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

Denver has universal school choice, which means that under a system that debuted in 2012, all students can use a single form to apply to any school in the district. That includes district-run schools and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Some charters, such as the high-performing Denver School of Science and Technology, prize integration, and their enrollment rules have always reflected that goal. As the district opened more of its own schools and set up new “enrollment zones,” which are bigger boundaries that contain several schools, it followed suit, Eschbacher said. Certain schools have enrollment “floors” that require that at least half of their students qualify for subsidized lunches.

In some cases, the goal was to make sure a school’s population reflected the neighborhood population, he said. In others, it was to ensure families didn’t self-segregate within zones: all higher-income students at one school and none at the others, for example.

Then, two years ago, Eschbacher read a news story about school integration efforts in Brooklyn, N.Y. It inspired him to dash off a proposal to Superintendent Tom Boasberg that resulted in the district inviting schools where fewer than 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch to participate in a pilot prioritizing the enrollment of low-income students.

The schools’ boundaries wouldn’t change, Eschbacher explained, and they would still accept students who live within their boundaries first. But for the remaining open seats, they would give preference to low-income students who applied, boosting those students’ chances to attend one of the district’s more affluent schools, which also tend to be among its highest performing.

Asbury, Edison, Steele, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval and Creativity Challenge Community elementary schools opted in the first year, as did Slavens, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The following year, East High joined the pilot, as well.

Julia Shepherd, principal at Creativity Challenge Community, said her school opted in because integration has always been one of its goals. C3, as it’s called, opened in 2012 in a wealthier southeast Denver neighborhood as an all-choice, non-boundary school offering a curriculum that calls for collaborating with local museums and cultural institutions.

Its percentage of low-income students has historically been far below the district average. Last year, 9.5 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. That number is up to 10.5 percent this year, but it’s 13.5 percent in kindergarten, which is the grade at which most new students enroll. Shepherd credits the increased diversity to the pilot program. Every low-income student who applied for a seat in C3’s kindergarten got in, she said.

“What we talk about so much here is community,” said Brent Applebaum, an assistant principal at C3. “…We want to be a representation of what Denver looks like.”

The pilot has been most successful at East, where historically about a third of all students have qualified for subsidized lunches. Of the 800 students in East’s freshmen class this year, 425 live in the boundary and 375 “choiced in,” Eschbacher said. The 375 includes 113 low-income students who live outside the boundary and don’t have a sibling at the school, which also gives applicants a priority. It also includes 170 non-low-income students who fit that description.

In the past, Eschbacher said, the 113 low-income students would have been tossed into a lottery with their non-low-income counterparts and faced a 50/50 chance of getting into the district’s most-requested school. Prioritizing them ensured they had a 100 percent chance, he said.

The numbers of low-income students who were accepted at each of the six elementary schools were so small that Eschbacher said he couldn’t disclose them for privacy reasons.

Part of the reason is that the factors that make the pilot work at East — lots of open seats and lots of demand — don’t exist at many other schools in the district, Eschbacher said. The seats at most more-affluent schools fill up with students who live in the boundary; Asbury had just five open kindergarten seats in 2016, according to district statistics, while Slavens had only six.

Full boundaries leave little room for choice students, low-income or not, Eschbacher said. “Are we giving them a boost no matter what?” he said. “Yep, we’re definitely trying. But one of the lessons we learned is that when few seats are available, it’s not going to move the needle very much.”

For enrollment prioritization to work, affluent schools must also attract enough interest from low-income students who want to choice in. That can be tough given that the district doesn’t provide transportation to most students who exercise choice. A recent district map of the percentage of low-income students in each elementary school boundary shows poor students are clustered in certain boundaries while wealthier students are clustered in others.

The Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative has been meeting since June, and Romero Campbell, the co-chairwoman, said that all options are on the table as its initial work draws to a close. The committee has two more meetings scheduled and is expected to release its recommendations next month.

work ahead

Five months in, crucial part of New York City’s school diversity plan begins to take shape

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

Five months after New York City officials announced a much-anticipated plan to address school segregation, an advisory group that is supposed to help put the plan into action is finally starting to take shape.

Behind the scenes, city officials have been recruiting potential members, while the group’s leaders have started some initial planning before the first full meeting on Dec. 11.

Chaired by high-profile civil rights leaders, their charge is to spearhead an independent effort to turn the city’s general plans into specific recommendations for how to spur integration in the country’s largest school district — and one of the most segregated.

Advocates have held out hope that the group will push Mayor Bill de Blasio to move faster and further on integration in his second term than he did in his first. But they also have reason to temper their expectations.

Establishing the group bought de Blasio another year to act on the politically volatile issue, a tactic he has deployed on other controversial matters including rising homelessness, the Riker’s Island jail, and contested public monuments. The integration group’s recommendations may not be released until December 2018, one member said — about six months after the original deadline, and several years after advocates began demanding action on segregation. And even then, city leaders can pick and choose among the recommendations, which are non-binding.

Politics 101 is: When you don’t want to decide, appoint a commission,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

To lead the work, the de Blasio administration chose respected figures who can speak with authority on race and segregation — but who are not advocates who have demanded aggressive action. They are José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP for New York State; and Maya Wiley, former chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, who previously served as de Blasio’s legal advisor.

Wiley, who is also professor of urban policy and management at the New School, said the group would try to boil down a decades-old problem with roots in housing policy, school-assignment systems, and structural racism to a set of realistic solutions.

“We’re looking for things that are actionable,” she said. “This is a big and complex set of questions.”

More recently, two additional members have been named to the group’s executive committee: Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is a longtime proponent of socioeconomic integration; and Amy Hsin, associate professor of sociology at Queens College.

The chairs have held at least two private planning meetings, and will continue to meet every six-to-eight weeks, said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Mantell said the group will ultimately include 30-35 members who will be divided into committees. The city is reaching out to potential members “based on the recommendations of the executive committee and our ongoing discussions with advocates, researchers, educators, parents and community members,” he wrote in an email.

Wiley, the executive board member, said the group wants to bring a diversity of perspectives into the planning process, so will host public meetings in every borough to gather different ideas on school segregation and how to address it.

The group grew out of the city’s “school diversity plan,” which was released this summer after relentless pressure from advocates and recurring headlines about de Blasio’s relative silence on the city’s persistent school segregation. The plan left many advocates underwhelmed.

In particular, they said the city set unambitious racial and socioeconomic integration goals for itself. Pressed on such concerns, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters the plan was “a strong first step,” but added: “There will be more to come.”

To some advocates, the advisory group creates an opening to give teeth to the city’s plan.

David Kirkland, executive director of the New York University Metro Center, recently accepted an offer to become a member. He said he hopes — among other changes — to push the city to set more aggressive goals for “racially representative” schools, which the plan currently defines as those where 50 percent to 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic (together those groups make up 70 percent of city students).

“It’s not clear to me that we have the right metrics,” he said. “My hope is that this diversity plan is going to begin to change in significant ways.”

In order for the recommendations to take hold, its members must be truly representative of the community — and free from political pressure to sidestep thorny issues, advocates say.

New York City’s grassroots integration movement has been criticized as being dominated by white middle-class parents and activists, although it includes members of different races and backgrounds. To build broad support for their work, observers say, the advisory group will have to bring in more black and Hispanic families whose children make up the majority of city students — as well as Asian students, who are often left out of the conversation about integration.

“If we don’t have authentic and real representation,” said Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration through the nonprofit New York Appleseed, “then we run the risk of running failed efforts in integration that we’ve already watched unravel” elsewhere.