charter schools

Parents at charter schools fair encouraged to use school data to inform decisions

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Parents talk to Memphis Rise employees about the new charter school

Parents knew some things they were looking for: Music and extracurriculars; a safe school; a school with strong academics. But at the Memphis Charter School Information and Enrollment Fair this past weekend, they were encouraged to ask one more question: What do the numbers say? How many of the school’s students are proficient in reading and math? What are they scoring on the ACT? What’s the school’s score on the state report card?

Representatives from charter schools, the Shelby County district, and the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) showed up this Saturday for the second annual charter school fair, which aimed to introduce parents to the increasing number of school options in Memphis and help them navigate their choices. There are 48 public charter schools in Memphis this year, and there are expected to be 56 in the 2014-15 school year.

“We want parents to be aware of their different choices,” said Greg Thompson, the chief executive officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Sherri Stepter, a parent of a sixth-grader and ninth-grader, said, “I came to get information about options for my son. I want a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, and a well-rounded education that incorporates the arts.”

Sheri Stepter talks to representatives from a charter school
Parent Sherri Stepter talks to representatives from a charter school

Next school year, there will be 40 charter schools run by Shelby County Schools and 16 charter schools in the ASD, which also directly runs six schools. This year, some 10,500 Memphis students attend charter schools. The Tennessee Charter School Center’s Hunter Schimpff said that he projects an additional 2,000 students in Memphis will attend charter schools in 2014-15, as new schools open and others add grade levels or expand their enrollment. The 150,000-student Shelby County school district has more than 200 schools, but has seen enrollment in its regular schools decline in recent years partly due to the influx of new school operators.

Charter schools in Tennessee are publicly funded and run by independent not-for-profit organizations, which are granted more autonomy over their school-level budgets, policies, personnel and curricula but are held to the same accountability standards as other public schools.With the exception of those zoned to schools within the state-run ASD, parents must choose to send their child to a charter school.

Despite a delayed start due to icy weather, more than 550 parents and children attended the fair Saturday, which was organized by the Tennessee Charter School Center. That’s more than attended last year’s event, organizers said.

A worksheet for parents at this weekend’s fair encouraged parents to examine data from charter schools and regular public schools.

Parents and students toured tables with colorful banners and school gear set up in a ballroom at the University of Memphis, talking to school officials and taking notes. Some even applied for schools on the spot. Cheerleaders from STAR Academy and a karate team from Grizzlies Prep performed on a stage.

Materials at the event encouraged parents to use school data to inform their decision. Parents and students were given an informational sheet to compare growth and achievement, as measured by the state’s report card, at their zoned school and at the featured schools at the fair. The sheet had space for parents to write what percent of students were proficient in various academic subjects, and how the school scored on state standardized tests and measures of growth.

At the entrance, Stand For Children was running a “data table,” where volunteers helped parents get numbers from the state’s report card to help them compare charter schools and district schools.

At their table, Shelby County Schools officials informed parents about their choice transfer, optional school programs, and other programs run  by the district. Nearby, officials for the state-run ASD passed out a brochure explaining their mission. Students zoned to priority schools – those ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state – are currently eligible to attend ASD schools.

Not all schools had years of data with which to convince parents: Jack Vuylsteke, the founder of Memphis Rise Academy, was at the fair recruiting students for a school that won’t open until August. Vuylsteke said Memphis Rise Academy has been canvassing door-to-door and meeting with community organizations and local elementary schools. A number of parents had taken materials and signed up for a mailing list on Saturday’s event. Vuylsteke said the school plans to enroll 108 sixth-graders next year, and that between 15 and 20 students had already applied for the school.

Robbin Sanders, a parent liaison for Memphis Business Academy, which was founded in 2005, said the fair was also a good recruitment tool for more established schools. “We graduate 70 students a year, so we always need to find more students,” she said. Sanders’ daughter was part of the Memphis Business Academy‘s first graduating class.

Andre Tyler, who attended the fair with his four-year-old son, also named Andre, said he was eyeing the Soulsville Charter School, which has sixth-eighth graders, for his daughter, who will soon graduate from STAR Academy, an elementary school. “She’s really into dance and music,” he said. He said the fair had been helpful, and that he was glad to have the charter school options. “I wanted to find a better school.”

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”


Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.