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.

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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.”

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.