community meeting

East High opens Monday as a revamped T-STEM school. But confusion lingers on who gets to attend

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
East High School opens this fall as an all-optional "T-STEM" school for ninth graders.

With just days to go before students are due back in class in Memphis, parents and community members are still trying to figure out who gets to attend East High School — and what happens to students who are left out.

They’re holding a meeting Friday evening to try to understand long-planned changes that are nonetheless catching some families by surprise.

East High is transitioning into the district’s first all-optional school, meaning students must apply and be accepted — effectively closing the school to most neighborhood students, who will now be sent to two other high schools. The changes have been a long time coming but have created last-minute confusion for parents who didn’t hear the news or are new to the neighborhood.

They include Jackie Webb, a retired Shelby County Schools teacher whose son went to private school last year but hoped to go to East, the school in their neighborhood, this fall. Instead, her son will be among the local students sent instead to Douglass High School, four miles away, or Melrose High School, nearly three miles away.

“I decided to enroll my son into Shelby County Schools earlier this summer, believing he could go to East,” said Webb, who lives in what has been East High’s zone. “Come to find out, I can’t enroll him in East. He has to get bused to Melrose or Douglass.”

Webb plans to attend the meeting 6 p.m. Friday at Lester Community Center, where Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland will listen to parents and try to answer their questions.

It’s not clear whether a representative from the school district would be on hand to answer questions. A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district had not heard such complaints from parents and had in fact been thorough in communicating with families and the community.

“From community meetings to phone calls and even extensive media coverage, we certainly have made it a priority to make families aware of the change,” said the spokeswoman, Kristin Tallent.

District leaders have said that major disruption needed to happen at East to keep the school open. In recent decades, the school’s enrollment has decreased to 500 in a school built for 2,000 students. And last spring, East made the list of the state’s 10 percent of lowest-performing schools, making it potentially vulnerable to state intervention.

Starting with this year’s incoming freshman class, East will shift to a “T-STEM” program focusing on transportation, science, technology, engineering and math. It will also choose students based on their academic performance, attendance, and discipline records — likely keeping out struggling students in the neighborhood.

The change drew pushback from alumni and community members concerned that the shift will hurt neighborhood students. Neighborhood students who were already attending East can stay through graduation but won’t be enrolled in the new program, and in the future, students in the neighborhood will have to meet admissions criteria to get in.

“I just moved back to the neighborhood and they are trying to send my daughter to Douglass,” Trina LaShawn said on a Facebook post. “But the way my work hours are set up I won’t be able to pick her up when school get out. She can walk from East but not Douglass.”

Follow the money

Rich PTA, poor PTA: New York City lawmaker wants to track school fundraising

New York City is home to some of the richest PTAs in the country, while other schools struggle to even recruit parent volunteers.

To better understand the disparities, City Councilman Mark Treyger on Monday will introduce legislation requiring the education department to track the membership and fundraising of schools’ parent organizations. The law would require an annual report to be posted to the education department’s website.

“We need to make sure all of our kids are receiving the same level of opportunity across the board,” Treyger said.

In the city and across the country, powerhouse parent organizations raise vast sums of money to boost the budgets of schools that tend to serve wealthier students — widening the gulf between them and schools with needier students.

For example, the PTA at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side was named the second wealthiest parent organization in the country in a report this year by the Center for American Progress. At a school where just 9 percent of students qualified as poor in 2013-14, the parent organization raised almost $1.6 million that year, according to the report.

In the very same district, P.S. 191’s PTA had about $11,000 in the bank as of January 2016, according to meeting minutes posted on online. About 78 percent of its students are poor.

Some districts have tried to reduce such disparities by requiring PTAs to share their wealth or restricting how the organizations can spend their money. But such limitations are not without controversy. In California, for example, parents have pushed for their own school district rather than pool their fundraising dollars.

The bill will be introduced at Monday’s City Council stated meeting.

integration push

‘Be bold’: Advocates, lawmakers call on New York City to go further on school integration

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Advocates rallied at City Hall on Thursday to demand anti-bias training for teachers and culturally relevant education for students.

As New York City tries to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of its schools, it must do more to make sure every school is welcoming to students of all backgrounds, advocates said Thursday before a hearing on the city’s diversity plans.

To make the point that the city has overlooked what actually happens inside classrooms at diverse schools, advocates pointed to an anti-bias training for 600 teachers that was funded in this year’s budget. Advocates had expected the training to take place before school started — but, three months into the school year, it still has not, they said.

Without such trainings and teaching materials that reflect students’ backgrounds, schools cannot become truly integrated, said Angel Martinez, the mother of three children in Harlem.

“It’s not just about putting black and brown children into predominantly white classrooms,” Martinez said Thursday outside City Hall at a rally organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice. “That’s not diversity. That’s just a color scheme.”

An education department spokesman said the anti-bias trainings will build on other initiatives already under way to build more culturally responsive classrooms. One of the groups that will lead the anti-bias trainings said they would begin in January.

After prodding from advocates, the de Blasio administration in June released a plan to boost diversity in the city’s schools, which are among the most segregated in the country. At Thursday’s City Council education committee hearing, lawmakers said the plan’s proposals are too small-scale and its goals too modest.

Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx faulted the city for not mentioning segregation or integration in its plan, opting instead for “diversity.”

“I worry that we’re white-washing the historical context of racial segregation,” Torres said. “It’s not only about words. It’s about a proper diagnosis.”

He urged officials to “be bold” and eliminate the admissions policy that lets “screened” schools select students based on grades, attendance, and other factors. The city’s plan does do away with an admissions policy that gave an edge to students who attend a school open house. Black and Hispanic students were less likely than their peers to benefit from that policy.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack said the education department does not plan to create more screened schools. But, when pressed, he declined to say whether selective schools exacerbate segregation.

“I think it depends on the context,” he said. “But I do think it’s an issue we would do well to address.”

Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn also called for changes to the high school admissions process. Although the system allows students to apply to schools outside their own neighborhoods — offering the potential to circumvent residential segregated — students still end up largely sorted into different schools according to race, class, and academic achievement.

Lander said the city should consider a “controlled choice” model, which would factor student diversity in admissions decisions while still letting families choose where to apply. The city recently established such a system for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

“We could have that ambition all across our high school system,” Lander said.

Wallack, the deputy chancellor, said the city’s plan is essentially a starting point. He pointed to a 30-member advisory group that is tasked with evaluating the city’s diversity plan, crafting its own recommendations, and soliciting ideas from the public. The group’s first meeting in Monday.

“These are initial goals and we set them out as a way of measuring our progress in some of this work,” he said.