THREE THINGS

Three things we learned about the state of school segregation in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Panelists from left to right: Daniel Kiel, Terri Freeman and Charles McKinney.

Memphis is as segregated as it is today because of a series of historical twists and turns, as well as recent decisions that deepened the racial divide, a panel of experts said Tuesday night.

About 50 residents attended the discussion on Memphis’s history and present state of segregation. The event was the kickoff of a speaker series led by the National Museum of Civil Rights MLK 50 project, Stand for Children and the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.  

Panelists were:

  • Terri Freeman, president of the National Museum of Civil Rights
  • Daniel Kiel, Memphis School of Law associate professor
  • Charles McKinney, Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College

For one Memphis teacher, the discussion was eye-opening.

“I am taking away the tremendous impact history has had on current segregation in Memphis,” said Kayleigh Bondor, a special education teacher at Hillcrest High School.

Here are our three takeaways from the discussion:

1) Fifty-six years after desegregation, Memphis schools are still highly segregated.

In 1961, 13 black students in Memphis were the first to desegregate schools in Shelby County. But like in cities across the nation, desegregation didn’t take hold the way its proponents had hoped, Kiel said.

In 1973, busing prompted the start of “white flight.”

“The response was substantial.” Kiel said. “In the time between the order for busing and the following school year, 20,000 white students disappeared from Memphis City Schools. Some moved out of the city, and some went to private schools created for them.”

“This marks the end of desegregation in Memphis,” Kiel said. “From this point on, (Memphis schools) become increasingly black.”

The pattern had potential to change but didn’t in 2013 when the Memphis city school system gave up its charter and merged with legacy Shelby County Schools. The historic merger lead to a “demerger” the following year, when six suburban towns pulled away to form their own districts. The Memphis-suburb splintering was recently highlighted in a national study on school secession.

Kiel called the merger/demerger a “missed opportunity to have a conversation about segregation.” Today, Shelby County Schools serve a majority black and poor population, while the suburban school districts remain more affluent and white.

2) Historical reverence for black teachers needs to be re-ignited if schools are to improve.

When growing up in Chicago, Freeman said, it was clear that African-American public school teachers were trusted and respected. That was true in black schools across the country before desegregation, but it’s no longer true now. And that has to change.

“When I think of the 1950s and 1960s, I think of teachers as being those who were elevated and put on a pedestal in African-American communities,” Freeman said. “We have really dismantled teaching as a profession, in part by seeing teaching as something you do for couple of years and move on.”

Freeman went on to say she takes issue with the prevalent philosophy that “anyone can teach,” demeaning the profession and disincentivizing the need to have a degree in education or master’s degree.   

“When it appears that the desire is for us to groom young white people to teach young black kids, when you create methods of now certifying teachers that don’t require higher education or a masters education, there’s a message that sends,” she said, adding, “We don’t need a revolving door.”

3) Efforts to improve opportunities stoked segregation within schools.

Recently, Shelby County Schools has set out to change the way parents and students apply into its optional schools program, which started in the 1970s as magnet programs to compete with private schools for high-achieving students.

But a reliance on standardized testing has imposed its own order on who gets in where, said McKinney, adding that standardized tests are known to be biased.

“They are used to filter students into honors programs, and that’s why the optional program in Shelby County Schools looks the way it looks,” said McKinney, who later added that he has a son in an optional program. “There are no mysteries here. The way in which our school system is structured is a direct result of segregation practices and policies.

“Want to kick up a hornet’s nest?” he added. “Go and try to change the optional programs. It’s one of the most racist programs in the country. What percent of students in optional programs are African American?”

Specifics on the optional program demographics aren’t publically available, but panelists agreed that the optional schools cater to a higher percentage of white, affluent students than Shelby County Schools as a whole, which is 78 percent black and 60 percent economically disadvantaged.

Kiel added that the optional program was created by the school system to attract families like his — white and middle class.

“Optional schools were designed to bring people like me into a school system that was bleeding white people every single year,” he said.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”