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

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.