Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.

Diversity Debate

Racial tensions flare at Newark’s elite Science Park High School amid debate over admissions policies

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Science Park students who are calling for admissions changes (from left): Azé Williams, Wendy Huang, and Bradley Gonmiah.

For months, a racially charged debate has been raging behind the scenes at Science Park High School about how one of Newark’s most elite schools selects its students.

Last week, it erupted into full view.

Science Park is the district’s most popular public high school, a selective magnet school that was the top choice for students applying to high school last year. But the National Blue Ribbon School’s enrollment does not reflect the district’s: A disproportionately small share of its students are black and a disproportionately large share are white, while relatively few hail from certain city wards with many black residents — including the Central Ward, where it’s located.

In response, a group of mostly black parents has been urging the administration to overhaul its admission system, which is based primarily on students’ state test scores. The parents have suggested interviewing applicants, focusing on their report cards, and potentially reserving seats for students from each ward.

The administration has made some minor changes to its admissions policies, but not enough to satisfy the parent group — which was evident last Thursday when the Science Park administration hosted a public town-hall meeting to discuss those policies.

The group, known as the Blue Ribbon Parents, boycotted the administration’s meeting until the final minutes, when the father of a Science Park student entered the auditorium and asked how the district could “legally and in good conscience” allow the current admissions system. The school’s principal, Kathleen Tierney, left before the man finished speaking.

“That was so disrespectful,” said Juwana Montgomery, whose twin sons are in ninth-grade at Science Park, after the meeting’s abrupt end. “They’re not addressing anything. Everything is a pushback, a pushback, a pushback, a pushback.”

The debate at Science Park mirrors longstanding ones at prestigious universities across the country and at elite public high schools in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York. The question is whether highly selective schools can find ways to be both exclusive and diverse, bastions for top achievers that are equally accessible to students from all backgrounds.

In Newark, the debate centers around the city’s magnet schools, which are allowed by the district to screen students based on their test scores, grades, attendance records, and, in some cases, upon the results of interviews or auditions. They are the district’s most popular high schools and its highest performing. But there are also large racial and ethnic disparities among the district’s six magnet schools and between some of them and the district’s eight traditional high schools, according to a school board report released in June.

“We were able to make it plain with the data that our schools are highly segregated,” said board member Leah Owens.

At Science Park, some parents and students say the school’s enrollment imbalances have contributed to racial tensions. Some black students in particular — who make up 34 percent of Science Park’s enrollment compared to 44 percent across the district — say they sometimes feel unwelcome at the school.

Several parents and students said they had witnessed or heard about white and Hispanic students using the N-word, occasionally directed at black students. District officials called the allegations “alarming” and said they were investigating them, while also bringing in an expert from Rutgers University-Newark to assess the “tenor” of the school. On Wednesday, Science Park is planning to gather its students for a forum on cultural sensitivity.

For students like Azé Williams, a 10th-grader, it’s impossible to separate the school’s racial tensions from its admissions policies, which have left black students and those from certain wards underrepresented. Not only that, but some teachers have opposed policy changes designed to bring in more black students, Williams said, on the grounds that doing so would lower the school’s standards.

“We don’t feel comfortable,” Williams said. “Black students, in particular, feel outcast — we feel like we are not protected.”

Science Park High School enrolls a larger share of white students and a smaller share of black and black male students than the overall district. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

At Science Park, 18 percent of students are white — compared to 8 percent across the district. And just 14 percent are black males, compared to 25 percent across the district. The school’s 45 percent share of Hispanic students is about even with the district, while its 4 percent share of Asian students is larger than the district’s.

Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of Science Park students come from district-run schools in the city’s north and east wards — which have large Hispanic populations — while only 13 percent went to district schools in the city’s south, central and west wards, where most black residents are concentrated, according to district data. Another 30 percent of students previously attended charter or private schools.

The Blue Ribbon Parent group blames those enrollment disparities on Science Park’s admissions criteria. Until this year, the school based 80 percent of applicants’ ranking on their PARCC test scores, 15 percent on their grades, and 5 percent on their attendance records. The parents say this system is inherently biased against black students, who on average have lower PARCC scores than their white and Hispanic peers in Newark and across the state.

A majority of Science Park students come from district schools in two wards. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

As an alternative, the parents proposed flipping the criteria so that students’ grades counted for 80 percent of their ranking, 15 percent was based on attendance, and 5 percent based on PARCC. Other recommendations included admitting the top students from each city school — an approach used by some universities to promote diversity — or reserving 20 percent of seats for students from each of the five wards.

Still other parents wanted to bring back student interviews and personal essays, which were part of the school’s screening process several years ago. And they said the school needs to do a better job recruiting underrepresented students.

“I told them quite clearly: We need more African Americans in that school — and we have to do it now, immediately,” said Kevin Maynor, whose son graduated from Science Park and whose daughter is in 10th-grade there. Presently, the school’s population “doesn’t reflect the brilliance that’s here in the city.”

After months of negotiations, Science Park’s administration agreed to tweak the admissions criteria that it used this year to select new students for 2018-19.

Now, PARCC scores count for 70 percent of students’ rankings and transcripts are worth 25 percent, while attendance is still 5 percent. The school also redacted students’ names, genders, and sending schools from their applications before ranking them, which parents had recommended. But the parents said those changes were insufficient.

At the town-hall meeting, Principal Tierney summarized the Blue Ribbon Parents’ demands and the admissions changes she made, but she did not respond to questions from the public. Instead, attendees were divided up and ushered into separate rooms to hold small-group discussions — a format that parents interpreted as a way to stifle public debate.

Tierney did not respond to an interview request. But in her opening remarks at the meeting, she suggested that she is open to further changes to the school’s admissions system.

“We need to talk about ways in which the admissions process can promote the diversity of the student body in a legal and equitable fashion,” she said.

District officials also appear open to additional changes. At a school meeting in January, officials suggested that Science Park could do targeted outreach to students in underrepresented neighborhoods and schools, give preferences to underrepresented groups in its admissions formula, and add more screening criteria, according to slides from their presentation.

During brief remarks at the start of last week’s town-hall meeting, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory made clear that he thinks Science Park’s current admissions system needs to be reexamined.

“The question raised that brought us here tonight is an important one and the right one,” he told the audience. “Does the use of standardized assessments unfairly limit students’ access into one of our highest-performing high schools because of their birth circumstances or the part of the city that they live in?”

But even Science Park faculty members who support the parents’ push for a more representative enrollment have some concerns about their proposals.

Nicole Sanderson, a Science Park history teacher, said she thinks the parents are right that the current admissions system excludes some students. She and her colleagues “would love to see more black boys at the school,” she said.

However, she worries that taking a certain share of students from every ward or basing admissions primarily on report cards could “backfire,” leaving some admitted students under-prepared for the rigor of Science Park classes. She suggested creating a Science Park-specific entrance exam and offering tutoring to students at feeder schools to help prepare them.

“There’s just no easy fix,” she said. “This has to be a multiyear and a multistep process.”

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.