Charter hopefuls

Thirteen applicants vie to open charter schools with Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Michelle McKissack, a board member of Crosstown High School Inc., speaks in May with supporters of the proposed new high school for midtown Memphis.

While Shelby County Schools revoked the charters of four schools this year, the district also has been taking applications for new charter schools, viewed as a potential tool to drive up the quality of public education in Memphis.

Thirteen applications are under review as the school board prepares to approve or deny them in August. They include a homegrown, philanthropically supported group seeking to establish the proposed Crosstown High School in midtown, as well as three out-of-state charter networks currently operating Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Quality will be central to the screening process, according to Brad Leon, the district’s strategy and innovation chief.

The district’s request for applications declared that Shelby County Schools is “only interested in authorizing charter schools that we believe can reach the top quartile of performance in the state.”

That’s a high bar for a district that has a high concentration of schools in Tennessee’s bottom quartile. But in 2014-15, Shelby County Schools saw academic gains in every subject except reading, and administrators are looking for engines that can help continue that trajectory.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are tuition-free. In Tennessee, they are mostly authorized by local school districts.

In Memphis, the prospect of opening new charter schools creates public perception challenges amid budget constraints and the recent closure of four district-authorized charter schools for low performance. But Leon said the focus needs to stay on quality.

“We’ve got to do both. We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options,” he said.

Leon will make his recommendations to the school board during a June 21 work session. Operators can amend their applications based on the feedback before decisions are made in August.

Inherent in the screening process will be the search for operators who can can help the district reach its goals under Destination 2025. The strategic plan aims by 2025 to have 80 percent of seniors college or career-ready, 90 percent of students graduating on time, and 100 percent of college or career-ready seniors enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity.

The request for applications emphasized that the “most urgent area of need relates to reading language arts at all tested grade levels.” Increasing the district’s ACT scores also was cited as an area of need in preparing students for post-secondary opportunities.

"We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options. "Brad Leon, strategy and innovation chief

Leon said a common theme among applications is an emphasis on STEM education — or science, technology, engineering and math. While the district did not solicit that particular focus, national trends have shifted toward those areas to prepare students for projected job growth in those fields.

The applicants include five vying to open schools in Hickory Hill, an area in southeast Memphis that has seen population growth in recent years.

Three national operators authorized in Memphis by the state-run ASD are seeking local authorization under Shelby County Schools: Green Dot, Pathways in Education and Scholar Academies.

Shelby County Schools and the ASD already have several operators in common, including KIPP, Gestalt, Freedom Prep and Promise Academy.

The applicants are:

  • Crosstown High School Inc. — The college prep high school proposed for midtown Memphis would feature partnerships with noted health care organizations slated to operate in the newly renovated Crosstown Concourse development.
  • Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the ASD.
  • Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator has two charters under the ASD that opened in 2014.
  • Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be an elementary and middle school in South Memphis seeking a full enrollment of 675 students.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school would focus on science technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as developing leadership skills, under the helm of Tamika Carwell, a former principal and teacher with Memphis City Schools.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The elementary school proposed for Hickory Hill would be the fifth by the operator, known for weaving business and economics across curriculum.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The middle school in Hickory Hill would complete the feeder pattern of the operator, which already has elementary and high schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
  • Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would have an emphasis on math and literacy, doubling class time in both subjects and offering classes in life skills.
  • The LeFlore Foundation — The Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would operate in Cordova, serving grades K-5 with an emphasis on STEM subjects.
  • Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located in close proximity to the South Main Arts District.
  • Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — “The” Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis with an emphasis on literacy.
  • Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop first-generation college-goers.
  • Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.

Chalkbeat reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Future of Schools

Chicago Schools sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C Sullivan High School

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.