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.

external control

State Board of Education pushes Adams 14 to give up authority over its schools

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

With the Adams 14 district failing to meet state academic expectations for eight years, Colorado education officials plan to send in an outside manager — but they don’t trust the district to agreeably cede its authority.

So before it steps in, the board late Wednesday moved to specify what powers it can force the district to give up.

State Board of Education members asked for an opinion from the Attorney General’s office.

The State Board met Wednesday to consider ordering drastic actions for the lowest performing school district in the state, in order to improve the education of the approximately 7,500 Adams 14 students. The state board was expected to vote Thursday, but may now delay its final order until getting legal advice on what it can request from the district.

State board member Joyce Rankin said the board must provide a clear and explicit explanation of its expectations, “because I thought we had this a year ago and apparently we did not.”

Leaders of Adams 14, based in Commerce City, presented their proposal to cede some of their authority, by hiring two outside groups — one to manage the district and one to manage the high school — but maintaining the local school board.

A state review panel that visited Adams 14 cited ineffective district leadership and recommended turning it over to an external manager.

Members of the State Board of Education had several critical questions for district leaders, especially around how much authority the district is willing to give up.

Superintendent Javier Abrego told the state board members that the external manager would not have control over hiring or firing staff.

Board member Steve Durham said that he sensed that both the Adams 14 school board and administration were unwilling to give up significant authority.

Durham earlier had pushed district leaders, including board President Connie Quintana, about whether they would voluntarily give up the right to approve every change an external manager might want to make.

Quintana said she would consider every one of the manager’s recommendation.

“They’re going to tell me what to do so I’m going to adhere to their directives,” Abrego tried to reassure Durham.

“Unless the board tells you to do something else,” Durham said. “It’s difficult to serve more than one master.”

When asked specifically about staffing, Quintana said she was not willing to give up that authority, and then when pushed further, said she would have to discuss it with the rest of the board and the district’s attorney.

State board members also said they had concerns that the district’s proposal sounds similar to its proposal last year, which hasn’t resulted in much progress.

Colorado law dictates that when a school or district has received one of the state’s two lowest ratings for more than five years in a row, the state must step in. Under the law passed earlier this decade, last year was the first year schools or districts could reach that five-year mark.

Those that did, including Adams 14, crafted plans with state officials to make changes and set goals for improvement.

Some low-performers have since improved, and a few others have more time to show progress. But state officials set a deadline of this fall for Adams 14 to earn higher ratings. The district failed to meet that goal.

Many of the changes the state board can order, such as merging districts, have never been tried in Colorado. But even so, Durham proposed that the state spell out what will happen if Adams 14 fails to give up full management authority. In that case, he proposed, the state’s order should state that the district could lose accreditation and the district would have to start procedures to dissolve.

State board President Angelika Schroeder agreed Wednesday that that may be appropriate language.

The hearing was packed, with several people set up to watch the meeting from the building’s lobby. Among those who traveled to Denver for the hearing were teachers, parents, advocates, and the district’s entire five-member school board.

A couple of community members were disappointed they were not allowed to give public comment Wednesday. A nearly monthlong process for written community input closed on Monday.

State board members rejected the criticism that they had not sought out community input, referencing multiple times the “mountains” of written comments that have been submitted for them to review. Much of the public comment submitted to the state board came from teachers union leaders from across the state asking for the state board to avoid turning any of their schools over to charter control.

new schools

Charter-school backers pack little-advertised Chicago hearing about new charters

PHOTO: Intrinsic Schools
Eighth-grade promotion at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago.

Charter-school supporters packed a little-publicized hearing called Wednesday evening to gather input on proposals to open three specialized charter schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

More than 50 people gathered before Margaret Fitzpatrick, an independent hearing officer hired by the district, to lobby her on proposals for three new schools. Intrinsic Charter School seeks approval for a citywide high school. Project Simeon 2000 proposes a middle school serving at-risk youth in Englewood. And Chicago Education Partnership wants to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

If approved, the schools would open for next school year.

As part of the first group of parents who sent their children to Intrinsic when it opened its first school, Lucy Weatherly said she unequivocally supported opening a second school under the network.  “We wanted something different for our son,” Weatherly said. “I owe them for a lifetime.”

“Intrinsic is a place that fully supports the holistic growth of students, who get a chance to really discover themselves,” said Ashley Ocanta Matthews, a teacher at Intrinsic.

While most speakers championed the charters proposals, teachers union representatives spoke forcefully against them.

“You deserve a raise, you deserve better healthcare, you deserve the ability to speak collectively with your boss, you deserve not to be terminated without cause,” said Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, directing his comments to teachers working at non-union charter schools.  “If you’re interested in joining a union, I’ll meet you in the hallway.”

Tension has been brewing at unionized charter schools. Teachers at the Acera charter network announced earlier Wednesday that they would strike on Dec. 4 if contract talks remain stalled.

The Chicago district already oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools, according to Hal Woods, director of school development with Chicago Public Schools. Contract schools are operated by private companies on contract and often offer a curriculum that differs from that in traditional schools. Option schools are privately run and serve students who have been expelled or previously incarcerated.

After a team including district employees from a variety of education fields and an out-of-state-analyst review each proposal, administrators will forward a recommendation to the board of education for a vote Dec. 5.

Intrinsic Charter School

Supporters, many from a current of Intrinsic Charter School, urged the district approve a second campus. The school, opened in 2013, has won a 1-plus rating, serving a student body that’s 90 percent Hispanic and 82 percent low-income.

The school touted its “personalized learning” model, in which a class of more than 60 students learn in “pods,” as the network calls classrooms, and move between projects and independent work. It is considering locating a new school at either 79 W. Monroe or 1357 N. Elston.

“I’m lucky we found Intrinsic,” said parent Angela Ibarra, one of many parents wearing Intrinsic T-shirts Wednesday. The school, she said, “fits my boy and is not one he had to find a way to fit into.”

Ibarra, mother of a 13-year-old, said she appreciates the individualized learning.

If approved the Intrinsic 2 high school would eventually serve 1,080 students.

Several teachers and parents spoke in support of Intrinsic, many wearing Intrinsic T-shirts. They focused on the varied paths that students could take after high school, either college or part-time work.

Kemet Leadership Academy Charter

The non-profit group Project Simeon 2000 has proposed  an alternative middle school focusing on black male students. It would feature project-based learning, comprehensive support services, and skills needed by local employers. Its supporters said the Chicago district is failing boys of color.

“I know from personal experience that it takes a black male with discipline to give black boys what they need,” said Francis Newman, mother of five African-American sons and a supporter of the proposed Kemet Academy Charter.  “No other community looks for someone outside the community to raise their children.”

The school would target students who have single parents, are more than one grade level behind academically, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system. It would serve 500 students in Greater Englewood, at a campus possibly at 6201 S. Stewart  or 6520 S. Wood.

Moving Everest 2

The Moving Everest 2 school, backed by people with roots in Christian education, promises both a “joyful and character-building school environment” for 810 students by offering academic and after-school services in the Austin area.

Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director, promised a full-time social worker, dental care, and a third meal of the day to students.

Ortabia Townsend, a mother of seven, said that she knows Austin families who have strong connections to the first Moving Everest school.

“There is a lot of love at that school,” she said.

The school, run by the Chicago Education Partnership, is rated a 2-plus. The partnership seeks to open a second school even though its current campus, projected to serve 810 K-8 students, has enrolled only 444 students this year. The new school is proposed for 1830 N Leclaire Ave.

While the proposal does not mention Christian education values, several members of the school’s board of directors have their roots in Christian education. The after-school program that partners with the school, By the Hand, is a “Christ-centered” program.

After district leadership make recommendations on the schools, the school board will vote on the charter proposals Dec. 5.