Optional Schools

‘Tent city’ is ending in Memphis. Will online admissions to prized schools be fairer?

PHOTO: Jim Lord
Parents line up outside Shelby County Schools central office in January 2016 to get applications for optional school admission.

Two years ago, Jim Lord camped outside in a tent for five days in January to secure a coveted spot for his son at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, one of the most popular public schools in Memphis.

It worked. Lord was the first person in line when Shelby County Schools opened its central office doors and began accepting applications for optional schools for the following year.

But the longstanding first-come, first-serve process gnawed at Lord and, even today, he knows that other deserving families were left out in the cold if they didn’t have the time and resources to do what he did.

“I hated it,” he said of the annual mass campout, which has come to be known as “tent city.”

Now the days of tent city are over, say district leaders.

In January, Shelby County Schools will move the entire application process online, and it’s exploring other changes too. Program director Linda Sklar says moving completely online offers a “unique opportunity to revisit our optional school application process for new students in a way that increases access and equity for all of our families.”

The district has 49 optional programs that provide specialty studies in areas such as science, computer technology, aviation and the performing arts. In recent years, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and Idlewild Elementary have been the optional schools of choice for Memphis families seeking a high-achievement public education. Not all applicants get into those two. But at the other schools, parents usually get their first choice if their student meets academic requirements, according to Sklar.

The former Memphis City Schools began developing optional schools in the 1970s as magnet programs to compete with private schools for high-achieving students.

Over the years, it’s tweaked the application process. Last January, the district revised its first-come, first-serve approach so that only 80 percent of applicants were chosen that way, and the remaining 20 percent were drawn from a lottery. It’s also been allowing students who are currently enrolled in the district to apply online.

District leaders unveiled two other options on Tuesday night during the first of several meetings to seek public input. In addition to the 80-20 option, they are considering 1) placing all applicants into a lottery, or 2) shifting the online process so that it’s all first-come, first-serve.

If the latter, parents worry that the inequities of “tent city” will simply migrate online. Memphis has a high percentage of single-parent families living in poverty, and digital access is an issue.

Whatever happens, Memphians are in agreement that the system that inspired tents to pop up on the grounds of the district’s headquarters is unacceptable.

“Camping out is unfair on so many levels to people,” said Susan Todd, a parent who hopes her fifth-grader can attend Maxine Smith next year. “There’s no way it can be equal if you work at Kroger because you do not have the … availability.”

Tosha Downey, who graduated from Memphis City Schools, said standing in line for a better school was not an option when she was growing up in a poor family, especially if she couldn’t walk to school.

“The first who come are the wealthiest, the most privileged, the ones with flexible schedules who can come and take off work, who can have their friends and their cousins and their nannies show up … and poor families cannot do that, no matter how brilliant their children are. They just cannot do it,” said Downey, who now works as advocacy director of the Memphis Education Fund, which works in behalf of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Venita Doggett, a parent and former district employee, said her mother camped out years ago for an optional school slot. She’s ready for tent city to go.

“I don’t understand why we’re doing something so archaic. If you open up a window for applications on Monday at 8 o’clock, that only benefits people that work in an office. That does not benefit anyone else,” she said.

Most people who weighed in on Tuesday said the lottery appears to be the fairest option going forward. But others, like Lord, favored some kind of hybrid process.

“It’s a combination of ability and motivation,” he said. “Some people may be really motivated to get in line but can’t because they’re at work. Going online definitely takes a lot of those access issues away.”

Ultimately, Lord said, there’s a fourth option that would render the whole conversation moot.

“The real solution,” he said, “is to have more of those schools.”

A second public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18, and an online survey is also planned.

test scores

How did your school perform on TNReady tests? Search here for results

Student's group

Nearly 700 schools – more than 40 percent of schools in Tennessee – improved in student performance across most grades and subjects, according to a state release of 2018 test results. And 88 school districts or 60 percent met or surpassed student growth expectations.

Test score data for every public school in Tennessee was released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

You can search our database below to find out how students in your school performed. The results show the percentage of students in each school who are performing at or above grade level.

Note: The state doesn’t release data for an exam if fewer than 5 percent of students scored on grade level or if 95 percent of students were above grade level. An asterisk signifies that a school’s score falls in one of those two categories. 

colorado accountability

Test results can spell relief or gloom for state’s lowest performing schools and districts

File photo of sixth-grade students at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

All three school Colorado districts under the gun to improve their academics showed some gains on test results released Thursday — but the numbers may not be enough to save one, Adams 14, from facing increased state intervention.

Of the three districts, only the Commerce City-based Adams 14 faces a fall deadline to bump up its state ratings. If the district doesn’t move up on the five-step scale, the state could close schools, merge Adams 14 with a higher-performing neighbor, or order other shake-ups.

The school district of Westminster and the Aguilar school district, also on state-ordered improvement plans, have until 2019 to boost their state ratings.

The ratings, expected in a few weeks, are compiled largely from the scores released Thursday which are based on spring tests.

District officials in Adams 14 celebrated gains at some individual schools, but as a district, achievement remained mostly dismal.

“We continue to see a positive trend in both English language arts and math, but we still have work to do,” said Jamie Ball, manager of accountability and assessment for Adams 14.

The district’s high school, Adams City High School, which has its own state order to improve its ratings by this fall, posted some declines in student achievement.

District officials said they are digging into their data in anticipation of another hearing before the State Board of Education soon.

In a turn likely to invite higher scrutiny, district schools that have been working with an outside firm, Beyond Textbooks, showed larger declines in student progress.

In part, Ball said that was because Beyond Textbooks wasn’t fully up and running until last school year’s second semester. Still, the district renewed its contract with the Arizona-based firm and expanded it to include more schools.

“Its a learning curve,” said Superintendent Javier Abrego. “People have to get comfortable and familiar with it.”

For state ratings of districts and high schools, about 40 percent will be based on the district’s growth scores — that’s a state measurement of how much students improved year-over-year, when compared with students with a similar test history. A score of 50 is generally considered an average year’s growth. Schools and districts with many struggling students must post high growth scores for them to get students to grade level.

In the case of Adams 14, although growth scores rose in both math and English, the district failed to reach the average of 50.

Credit: Sam Park
PARCC, district on state plans
Credit: Sam Park

Westminster district officials, meanwhile, said that while they often criticize the state’s accountability system, this year they were excited to look at their test data and look forward to seeing their coming ratings.

The district has long committed to a model called competency-based education, despite modest gains in achievement. The model does away with grade levels. Students progress through classes based on when they can prove they learned the content, rather than moving up each year. District officials have often said the state’s method of testing students doesn’t recognize the district’s leaning model.

“It’s clear to us 2017-18 was a successful year,” said Superintendent Pam Swanson. “This is the third year we have had upward progress. We believe competency-based education is working.”

The district posted gains in most tests and categories — although the scores show the extent of its challenge. Fewer than one in five — 19.6 percent of its third graders — met or exceeded expectations in literacy exams, up from 15.9 percent last year.

Students in Westminster also made strong improvements in literacy as the district posted a growth score of 55, surpassing the state average.

Westminster officials also highlighted gains for particular groups of students. Gaps in growth among students are narrowing.

Schools still on state ordered plans for improvement, and deadline for improvement

  • Bessemer Elementary, Pueblo, 2018
  • Heroes Middle, Pueblo, 2018
  • Risley International Academy, Pueblo, 2018
  • HOPE Online Elementary, Douglas 2019
  • HOPE Online Middle, Douglas, 2019
  • Prairie heights Middle, Greeley, 2019
  • Manaugh Elementary, Montezuma, 2019
  • Martinez Elementary, Greeley, 2019

Look up school results here.

One significant gap that narrowed in Westminster was between students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty, and those who don’t. In the math tests given to elementary and middle school students, the difference in growth scores between the two groups narrowed to three points from 10 points the year before, with scores hovering around 50.

Results in individual schools that are on state plans for improvement were more mixed. Three schools in Pueblo, for instance, all saw decreases in literacy growth, but increases in math. One middle school in Greeley, Prairie Heights Middle School, had significant gains in literacy growth.

The Aurora school district managed to get off the state’s watchlist last year, but one of its high schools is already on a state plan for improvement. Aurora Central High School has until 2019 to earn a higher state rating or face further state interventions.

Aurora Central High’s math gains on the SAT test exceeded last year’s, but improvement on the SAT’s literacy slowed. The school’s growth scores in both subjects still remain well below 50.

Look up high school test results here.