Facility use

Shelby County caves on roof repair for a school it no longer runs

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Water from a leaky roof has left behind damage to the cafeteria at Libertas School of Memphis.

Months of negotiations between a Memphis charter school and its landlord, Shelby County Schools, over a leaky roof ended Tuesday with a compromise.

The school district will spend $165,000 for the labor needed to repair the roof in the Frayser school’s cafeteria. The charter school, Libertas School of Memphis, will kick in a smaller amount for materials.

And other repairs to the school building — which was Brookmeade Elementary School until Libertas assumed operations through the state-run Achievement School District in 2015 — will be delayed until Shelby County Schools releases a long-awaited assessment of its facilities this fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at a school board meeting.

The roof repair is a microcosm of issues between Shelby County Schools and the charters that operate in district-owned buildings. When those schools move into buildings that have gone without repairs for a long time, they must either pay for repairs on their own or persuade the cash-strapped district to make improvements.

Water damage from roof leak at the cafeteria entrance at Libertas School of Memphis. (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)
Water damage from roof leak at the cafeteria entrance at Libertas School of Memphis. (Photo by Laura Faith Kebede)

Since opening, Libertas has routinely used industrial vacuums to clean up water after big rains. The operator has already poured more than $200,000 worth of improvements into other parts of the building and offered to borrow money to get the roof repairs done quickly and wait for reimbursement from the district.

Then last month, district leaders announced a plan to allocate $12,000 for repairs, only a tiny fraction of what was needed. Principal Bob Nardo said at the time that $135,000 would be enough to fix the worst damage. He also said that despite the delay, the district had made a good-faith effort to find a solution.

Some board members have said Libertas should not have been allowed to move into a building that needed so much work, and the district has taken steps to avoid repeating the Libertas scenario. Earlier this year, it withdrew permission for a charter to use space at Lincoln Elementary School, which closed in 2015, in part because the building needs significant work. (The district also worried about facilitating enrollment pressure on nearby schools.)

The school board authorized a “charter compact” in January to address contentious issues between the district and the charter sector, including facility needs. The board also created a committee to make policies under the compact, but that committee has met only once since then.

The district antagonized the local charter sector this spring by revoking three low-performing charter schools’ right to operate. The decision to spend heavily at the Brookmeade building could represent something of an olive branch.

But board chair Teresa Jones said the decision to pay for Libertas’ roof repairs could set a dangerous precedent for the district to pour money into schools it does not operate at a time when it is working to cut its facilities costs.

“With high deferred maintenance, it could really get out of control,” she said.

Future of Schools

Spike in refugee students fuels increase in English language learners at two adult charter schools

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Two charter schools serving adults saw Indianapolis’s largest spike in students learning English this year, fueled by a rise in the refugees seeking high school diplomas, officials said.

Excel Center-University Heights and Christel House DORS South, charter schools serving adult students, saw their enrollment of English language learners jump to 44 percent and 63 percent of all students, respectively.

The campuses are less than two miles apart. The south side neighborhood they serve is close to a large population of Burmese refugees, said Jeff Hoover, Senior Director of The Excel Center Network and Operations.

Excel, which has 359 students, overwhelmingly attracts students by word-of-mouth, said Hoover, so enrollment at University Heights has gained momentum among refugees as students graduate and spread the word in their communities.

“They really created a real family type of atmosphere,” he said. “Being in a different country, and feeling that sense of community within a school is certainly … something that would attract me.”

Indiana has a mixed history when it comes to welcoming refugees. Indianapolis has one of the largest Burmese communities in the U.S., and about 14,000 Burmese-Chin refugees now live on the south side of the city, the Indy Star reported last year. Indiana admitted 1,893 refugees in 2016, according to Exodus Refugee Immigration, a nonprofit that works with refugees in Indiana. But under the Trump administration, that number was dramatically cut. At an Indianapolis school dedicated to serving students who are new to the country, enrollment declined in part because of the policy change.

State lawmakers allocated an extra $250 per student this year for schools to help educate students who are English language learners. At schools that have particularly high populations of students learning English, even more money is available.

International students who go to Excel may have high school diplomas or even college or advanced degrees from their home countries, unlike the U.S.-born students there, Hoover said. But Indiana employers and universities don’t always recognize those credentials, so the immigrants go to Excel to earn recognized diplomas.

Students who are English language learners often go through the same program as their peers who are fluent, but it may take them longer to complete diplomas, Hoover said. At the University Heights campus, there is an instructor who can speak some of the dialects spoken by Burmese refugees.

As charter school targeted at serving adults, Excel offers flexible scheduling and onsite childcare.

These 10 Marion County schools saw the number of English language learners enrolled jump over the past year.

  1. Excel Center – University Heights — 44 percent of students are English language learners, up 20 percentage points from last year.
  2. Christel House DORS South — 63 percent of students are English language learners, up 17 percentage points from last year.
  3. James Allison Elementary School in Speedway — 29 percent of students are English language learners, up 12 percentage points from last year.
  4. Homecroft Elementary School in Perry Township — 36 percent of students are English language learners, up 9 percentage points from last year.
  5. Southport Elementary School in Perry Township — 46 percent of students are English language learners, up 9 percentage points from last year.
  6. Westlake Elementary School in Wayne Township — 34 percent of students are English language learners, up 9 percentage points from last year.
  7. Arlington High School in Indianapolis Public Schools — 11 percent of students are English language learners, up 8 percentage points from last year.
  8. James Whitcomb Riley School 43 in Indianapolis Public Schools — 8 percent of students are English language learners, up 8 percentage points from last year.
  9. Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township — 35 percent of students are English language learners, up 8 percentage points from last year.
  10. Global Preparatory Academy at School 44 in Indianapolis Public Schools — 23 percent of students are English language learners, up 8 percentage points from last year.

Making history

Watch Chalkbeat’s first-ever Great American Teach-Off here

Participants in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off Tim Livingston, left, Eleanor Vierling, Kaitlin Ruggiero, and Terrance O’Neil. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

On March 7, two teams of educators met in Austin to teach a math lesson — and make history.

The teachers, Eleanor Vierling and Kaitlin Ruggiero, and Tim Livingston and Terrance O’Neil, taught a 20-minute lesson called “contemplate then calculate.” The teachers were participating in Chalkbeat’s first-ever Great American Teach-Off, an event at the SXSW EDU conference.

The goal of the Teach-Off, inspired by some of our favorite TV shows that celebrate the hidden craftsmanship in other professions, was to elevate the craft of teaching.

After both teams of teachers presented their lessons, there was a robust conversation on stage and on Twitter about the best moments.

Watch the entire Teach-Off here and then tell us your favorite moment using the hashtag #teachoff.