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.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year