Tardy start

Memphis educators: First days of school matter

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Alissiya, 6, and Tynesha, 13, wait with their mother to be registered for the first day of school.

Clutching immunization records in one arm and her infant son in the other, Stephanie Smith shrugged when asked why she was registering her two daughters for school on Tuesday at Riverview, a K-8 school in Memphis.

It was 9:30 a.m., two hours after the day’s first school bell rang and a full six days since the school year began. Tynesha, 13, and Alissiya, 6, waited alongside their mother to complete the registration process.

Teachers at Riverview School aren’t shrugging. This year, the staff must aggressively raise test scores that have languished among the worst in the state for decades. They are using the first days of school to explain rules and expectations and roll out an aggressive curriculum. For every three dozen or so children who wait past Labor Day to show up to class, the school loses a staff member. And for every day a child misses school, that’s eight fewer hours a teacher has with the student.

“If they miss the first day, they’ve already missed valuable instruction time,” said Riverview principal LaTasha Harris.

By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students across Shelby County were still not registered, a chronic problem of late registration that has stumped Memphis educators for decades.

To address to issue, Riverview administrators dispatched staff members to call parents’ phones and knock on relatives’ doors before the first school bell even sounded.

Likewise, the district made an unprecedented push to get kids registered early. It extended the registration period, placed the process online, and organized special events to help families without computers or Internet service — all in an effort to widen access.

Next month, the district will celebrate National Attendance Month in grand fashion, complete with appearances by NBA players from the Memphis Grizzlies, billboards and public service announcements.

“I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day,” said Angela Hargrave, the district’s director of attendance and discipline. “They think that if their students miss the first couple of days, they’re really not missing that much. What we plan to do is continue getting the message out to the community that school starts on the first day, and it’s critical for them to be there. When your child misses the first day, … they’re like the new kid on the block.”

Tracking students

District administrators were not able to provide attendance numbers from this time last year, despite repeated requests by Chalkbeat. The numbers would show whether the shift to an online registration process has helped.

Hargrave said this week district staff are working to track thousands of missing students who may have begun attending several new charter schools or ventured to the outskirts of the county where six municipal districts have begun their second year of operations. With each student who leaves or moves, the Memphis-based district loses accompanying education funds.

“We don’t have clean numbers to tell us how many students have gone somewhere else,” Hargrave said.

Administrators are working diligently to check surrounding districts’ enrollment records to see if missing students are registered elsewhere or if, as many teachers think, the students are still on summer vacation.

School leaders who have worked in high-poverty schools with transient populations offer a long list of reasons for why parents wait so long to send their child back to school.

In the last few decades, service-industry jobs have become more temporary, lasting just a handful of months and prompting parents to move to look for work. Instead of owning homes as many families did decades ago, the vast majority of Memphians, many with bad credit, rent or use housing vouchers, signing leases that last six months to a year.

The district has closed several dozen under-enrolled schools in the last five years in an attempt to right-size the district, and several new charter schools have opened in their place, some serving different grades and starting at different times of the school year.

By August, many parents simply don’t know what school their family is zoned for.

There are other reasons, too. In order to register, parents have to show two forms of identification and proof of residency. But many Memphians either don’t have two forms of identification or have recently had their drivers’ license suspended. Many live with family or friends, so proving residency requires a notary public.

Others want to miss the large crowds and long lines associated with the first day of school.

Reaching out

At Riverview, the staff started the registration process early in the wake of the recent closure of crosstown rival South Side Middle School. Those students are now zoned for Riverview, a move that sparked loud protests and even a lawsuit from one group of South Side parents and teachers. Riverview, they argued, is located in a gang-ridden neighborhood also besieged by prostitution and shooting.

As school principal, Harris knew it would be challenging to convince parents otherwise and launched a campaign to absorb South Side students and convince their families not to transfer them to charter schools.

During the summer, the staff broke up into teams of five and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods, urging parents in person to register their child. They held a series of open houses and gave out free uniforms, hotdogs and haircuts.

“Many say they don’t have uniforms or school supplies,” Harris said. “We want to get rid of every excuse possible.”

For parents without the necessary proofs of residence or immunization shots, administrators sent the students to class anyway and sent a letter home to parents warning about suspension if they didn’t bring in the necessary forms by the next week.

By Tuesday, the school had 516 students registered, just one shy of its projected number. And in this era of accountability, where standardized tests matter more than ever, teachers aren’t wasting time.

"I think that some parents just don’t understand that the first day of school is an important day."Angela Hargrave, director of attendance and discipline

Having covered classroom rules including how to walk in the hallway — hands by your side and no talking — third-grade math and science teacher Jerreca Saulsberry was distributing notebooks on Tuesday for holding worksheets and tests. Soon, she’ll be administering assessments to determine academic levels and begin teaching to the state’s standards.

“Those first few days, we’re setting the culture of the school,” Saulsberry said. “If you’re not here, you’re missing out.”

Last year, Saulsberry had just five out of her 20 students show up on the first day of school, a jarring experience. She since has created a system to accommodate the steady stream of new students who show up in her class. She’s designated two “student ambassadors” who orient new students on classroom rules, and she created a folder of important forms and worksheets to send home with them.

When 15 students were in her classroom on the first day of school this year, the improved showing elicited cheers in the faculty lounge.

As for Tynesha and Alissiya, both said they were excited about their first day of class, albeit more than a week late. And their mom was happy too about the registration process.

“It was much easier than I thought it’d be,” she said.

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.

Test Results

Newark’s PARCC scores inch up, setting baseline for new superintendent

PHOTO: Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia/Getty Images

Newark students made process on the state English tests this spring, while growth stalled on the math tests, according to results released by the district. The results provide a new baseline that the district, which is back under local control after decades of state oversight, will likely be judged against in coming years.

Just over 34 percent of Newark students who took the 2018 PARCC English tests met or exceeded state expectations — a 3.1 percentage point increase over the previous year. Students in grades 3 to 11 took the computerized tests; every grade except for fifth and eighth made gains in English.

In math, 23.2 percent of students hit the state’s benchmark. That is 0.6 percentage points higher than in 2017 — a smaller growth rate than in previous years. The results were uneven: While some grades made gains, students in grades 3, 6, and 8 saw declines, as did students who took the geometry test.

Statewide, 55 percent of students met grade-level expectations in English and 42 percent did so in math. Students must score at a level 4 or above on a 1-5 scale to be considered performing on grade level.

In February, after 22 years of state control, Newark’s local school board was put back in charge of the district, just weeks before students sat for the tests. The results will now become the yardstick against which observers will measure student progress under local control and assess the new superintendent, Roger León, a veteran Newark education who took over in July.

“We have a lot of work to do,” León said at a board meeting in August where officials shared some highlights from the results. (Chalkbeat filed a public-records request to get the district-wide pass rates.)

In a recent public radio interview, León added that the test scores show that teaching needs to improve.

“The instruction in the classroom can’t be the same,” as it has been, he said on WBGO. “Because our student achievement data is suggesting that that’s not really good.”

State policymakers are currently debating the future of the PARCC tests, which students first took in 2015. Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to replace the controversial tests, but some lawmakers have expressed concerns about his plan.

The state sent this year’s PARCC results to districts, which have shared them with families, but it has not yet posted them online. Last year, they were available to the public on Sept. 28. A state education department spokesman said Wednesday that he expects the school and district-level results to be posted “in a matter of days.”

After the results were published last year, Newark sent out a press release touting the district’s progress. The release noted that Newark made larger gains in math and English than the state overall. This year, the district’s gains were larger than the state’s in English but smaller than the state’s in math.

Newark’s test scores have become the site of a proxy battle between critics and defenders of the controversial policies that transformed the district in recent years. Under former state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, some neighborhood schools were shuttered, more charter schools were opened, and a new teachers contract that tied teacher pay partly to student test scores.

Last year, a team of Harvard researchers tried to measure the impact of those changes. They found that Newark students’ annual growth on the state tests initially declined after the reforms kicked off in 2011. By 2016, however, students were making greater gains in English than they had before the reforms. In math, their growth was no better or worse than before the changes.

Whatever factors drove Newark’s test scores to where they are today, Superintendent León will now be expected to move them higher. Indeed, along with perfect attendance, León has set a goal of every student passing the state tests — an impossibly high bar that no large urban district has ever cleared.

As León tries to boost scores, he must contend with wide achievement gaps between groups of students. For instance, on the English tests, white students outperformed black students by 26 percentage points, general-education students outperformed special-education students by 29 points, and English-proficient students outperformed those still learning the language by 26 points.

“We actually have a strategy on how to reduce the gap and improve achievement,” León said at the Aug. 28 board meeting. “We’re not afraid of the data.”

Graphics by Sam Park.