community meeting

East High opens Monday as a revamped T-STEM school. But confusion lingers on who gets to attend

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
East High School opens this fall as an all-optional "T-STEM" school for ninth graders.

With just days to go before students are due back in class in Memphis, parents and community members are still trying to figure out who gets to attend East High School — and what happens to students who are left out.

They’re holding a meeting Friday evening to try to understand long-planned changes that are nonetheless catching some families by surprise.

East High is transitioning into the district’s first all-optional school, meaning students must apply and be accepted — effectively closing the school to most neighborhood students, who will now be sent to two other high schools. The changes have been a long time coming but have created last-minute confusion for parents who didn’t hear the news or are new to the neighborhood.

They include Jackie Webb, a retired Shelby County Schools teacher whose son went to private school last year but hoped to go to East, the school in their neighborhood, this fall. Instead, her son will be among the local students sent instead to Douglass High School, four miles away, or Melrose High School, nearly three miles away.

“I decided to enroll my son into Shelby County Schools earlier this summer, believing he could go to East,” said Webb, who lives in what has been East High’s zone. “Come to find out, I can’t enroll him in East. He has to get bused to Melrose or Douglass.”

Webb plans to attend the meeting 6 p.m. Friday at Lester Community Center, where Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland will listen to parents and try to answer their questions.

It’s not clear whether a representative from the school district would be on hand to answer questions. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district had not heard such complaints from parents and had in fact been thorough in communicating with families and the community.

“From community meetings to phone calls and even extensive media coverage, we certainly have made it a priority to make families aware of the change,” said the spokeswoman, Kristin Tallent.

District leaders have said that major disruption needed to happen at East to keep the school 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.

Starting with this year’s incoming freshman class, East will shift to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. It will also choose students based on their academic performance, attendance, and discipline records — likely keeping out struggling students in the neighborhood.

The change drew pushback from alumni and community members concerned that the shift will hurt neighborhood students. Neighborhood students who were already attending East can stay through graduation but won’t be enrolled in the new program, and in the future, students in the neighborhood will have to meet admissions criteria to get in.

“I just moved back to the neighborhood and they are trying to send my daughter to Douglass,” Trina LaShawn said on a Facebook post. “But the way my work hours are set up I won’t be able to pick her up when school get out. She can walk from East but not Douglass.”

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”

late addition

Exclusive Center School will join Upper West Side integration push, education department says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York City education department is based out of Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

One of the most exclusive schools on the Upper West Side could be included in a controversial integration plan after all — just a year later.

The apparent reversal regarding the Center School came after the New York Post reported that the school was left out of the proposal being debated in District 3. Under the plan, a quarter of seats at every middle school in the district would be reserved for students who struggle on state tests.

The Center School has become known for enrolling the children of celebrities such as “Sex in the City” star and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who once argued against a proposal to move the school because she worried it would exacerbate segregation. The Center School serves among the fewest poor students in the district, and last year was almost 60 percent white — almost double the district average.

Yet the Post reported on Sunday that the school was exempt from the integration proposal because it enrolls students starting in fifth grade, instead of sixth. The tabloid also raised questions about how students are admitted there, calling the application process “a mystery.” The school is one of the few citywide that still runs its own admissions, instead of being overseen by the education department.

“They have their completely own, independent rubric which they don’t have to release or justify,” Alina Adams, an education consultant, told the Post. “Nobody knows how kids get into that school.”

The report prompted questions from elected officials. City Councilman Ritchie Torres asked the Department of Investigation and the Human Rights Commission to look into the school’s admissions and why it wasn’t included in the integration plan, the Post reported Monday. And City Councilman Mark Treyger, who heads the education committee, wrote a letter to the chancellor demanding similar answers.

“We need to ensure that all students have the same education opportunities, and that starts by making sure that our schools have transparent application processes,” Treyger wrote.

Many integration advocates have made similar arguments. Critics of the city’s screening process — which allows some schools to pick their students based on factors such as report card grades and attendance — say the system is often confusing and favors parents who have the time and savvy to figure it out.

Since test scores are closely linked to race and class, the District 3 proposal could integrate schools on multiple levels. But it has faced pushback from parents who have come to expect that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools. No changes have been formalized yet, but the district superintendent hopes to have a plan in place for the 2019-20 school year.

Should it take effect, education department spokesman Doug Cohen said it would apply to Center School fifth graders entering in the 2020-21 school year. He added that the department is “working” to bring all middle schools under its centralized process for the next admissions cycle. That includes Center School.

“As part of the transition, the school will begin posting its admissions rubric,” Cohen wrote in an email.