t-steam ahead

It’s official. Big changes coming to historic Memphis East High School

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Since 1948, East High School has served students in Memphis.

For the first time, an all-optional high school is being established in Memphis under Shelby County Schools’ competitive academic program geared toward students with unique interests and aptitudes.

East High School, open since 1948 and one of the city’s most iconic schools, is officially on the list of optional programs being promoted this month as the district prepares to receive applications beginning on Jan. 27.

Starting with the incoming freshman class, the school will shift this fall to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. The transportation aspect is unique and seeks to prepare workers to feed the growing transportation and logistics industries in Memphis, home to distribution powerhouse FedEx and several trucking companies.

East’s T-STEM program is among 46 programs being promoted Sunday afternoon during the district’s annual optional fair at the University of Memphis. Interested families also are invited to open houses later this month, including one at East on Jan. 18.

The high school’s conversion comes despite pushback from many alumni and supporters concerned that neighborhood students will be bused elsewhere if they don’t apply or get accepted into the optional program.

District leaders insist that East must be reinvented if it’s to stay open. In recent decades, the school’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000 students. And last spring, East made the list of the state’s 10 percent of lowest-performing schools, making it potentially vulnerable to state intervention.

The Shelby County Board of Education did not vote on the conversion. Heidi Ramirez, the district’s chief of academics, said Friday that no vote is required since the change will not include a rezoning of students.

Ramirez and other district leaders have been meeting with East families and alumni in recent months and working through issues related to the redesign — not the least of which is what will happen to the school’s athletic programs. Sports teams have long been a source of pride for East and its midtown neighborhood. Just last fall, the school’s football team brought home a state championship title. Ramirez said the new all-optional school will continue to offer the same athletic programs for boys and girls.

Ramirez said the school system soon will conduct a survey to seek input from current and potential East parents and students about additional programs or activities desired.

District leaders rolled out the new plan for East in October, and Ramirez said they’re staying on track with the design. She said organizations and businesses continue to express an interest in partnering with the school.

“We want the design of the school to reflect a meaningful integration of technology,” Ramirez said. “We want this to look more like a space for project-based learning.”

The high school currently has an optional engineering program but with only 35 students — far insufficient to re-anchor the massive school.

Ken Welch, who has spearheaded East’s online alumni page for two decades, is among East supporters who have reluctantly accepted the change.

“I want people to be able to walk to their school,” Welch said. “It fosters neighborhood cohesiveness, but I’m torn in this case. The administration makes a compelling argument that the school needs more students.”

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.