New direction

Tennessee chapter breaks off from national black education advocacy group

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Mendell Grinter speaks at a 2016 school choice rally in Memphis organized by the local chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, now called the Campaign for School Equity.

A Tennessee organization promoting school choice for low-income and working-class black families is parting ways with its national parent.

The Tennessee chapter of Black Alliance for Educational Options, which is headquartered in Memphis, is growing while the national organization is sputtering, according to state director Mendell Grinter.

Effective Friday, the Tennessee group will operate as The Campaign for School Equity, or CSE, according to an email sent Tuesday to supporters of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, known as BAEO.

“As BAEO embarks on a new journey, the Tennessee team will chart its own course with CSE, while upholding the BAEO organizational values that have guided the work to protect the educational interests of Black families since our founding in 2000,” said the email from Grinter and Jacqueline Cooper, national BAEO president.

Tennessee’s BAEO chapter has become an increasingly strong voice both in Memphis and at the state Capitol in promoting charter schools and tuition vouchers as avenues to strengthen education options for black children. It has eight employees in Memphis and recently hired a staff member in Nashville.

With the transition, Grinter said the state organization will continue its parent advocacy work and add student engagement to its roles. Grinter will remain as the group’s executive director.

The breakaway comes several months after Tennessee’s chapter transitioned to full funding from philanthropic organizations such as Hyde Family Foundations, The Poplar Foundation and Pyramid Peak Foundation. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat, which is a nonprofit news organization, also receives funding for its Tennessee newsroom from some of those same groups.)

BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)
BAEO founder Howard Fuller speaks June 27 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville. (Photo by National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

BAEO was founded by Howard Fuller, who served as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools during the 1990s and has continued to advocate for school choice, including tuition vouchers to enable low-income children to attend private schools.

The departure of the Tennessee chapter will leave BAEO’s national organization with chapters in New Jersey and Louisiana. At one time, the Washington, D.C.-based organization had chapters in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, home of the nation’s first voucher program aimed at low-income families.

The national organization was in limbo for about a year while searching for a new president until Cooper permanently took the helm in February. Most of the national staff was laid off in March, Grinter said. Fuller announced earlier this year that BAEO would discontinue its formal operations to launch a Social Innovation Challenge that would help determine the organization’s future endeavors.

Grinter said the urgency of work being done by the organization in Tennessee outweighs the desire of its leadership to weather the storm of uncertainty with the national organization.

“There’s definitely a need for more black-led organizations like BAEO,” said Grinter, 25, who came to Tennessee last summer after serving as its Kentucky director. And “it’s definitely time for a change. … For us on the ground, with the national stuff, we don’t have time for that.”

After Tuesday’s announcement, Grinter added: “I have such tremendous respect and love for the national organization and [am] so thankful for the experience. It is true that we’ve achieved tremendous growth and success for our work in Memphis, but it wouldn’t be possible with out the structure that BAEO provided.”

In Memphis, BAEO has pushed for expanding two initiatives aimed at turning around low-performing schools — the state-run Achievement School District and the Innovation Zone operated by Shelby County Schools. Its team also lobbied the state legislature earlier this year to pass voucher legislation, a proposal that had early momentum but ultimately failed.

The Campaign for School Equity describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan grassroots organization with a mission of expanding high-quality education options across Tennessee.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional comments from Grinter after the announcement.

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.