Judge’s ruling confirms new school district lines, but the real changes are just beginning

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

On Monday, federal judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. dismissed a lawsuit alleging that carving new school districts in the Memphis suburbs out of the merged Shelby County system would resegregate the county’s schools. The decision brings to a close a long legal battle over the creation of municipal districts in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington.

But though the suit is settled, the reshuffling of families, staff, and funds among the new districts has just begun. The changes that ensue could have a long-term effect on residential patterns, economic development, and school enrollment, budget and quality in southwest Tennessee.

The proposed 2014-15 boundary lines of the new municipal districts and Shelby County Schools don’t match up with the legacy Shelby County and Memphis City lines; many students in unincorporated areas of the county who previously attended the suburban school district will now attend the district that includes Memphis. Only students who live in the suburban towns are guaranteed spots in the six new districts.

Research shows that school district boundary lines influence the distribution of housing prices and wealth in a metropolitan area. Families who are able to often relocate in order to attend high-rated school districts.

“When you have district boundary lines that set districts and municipalities into competition with each other, the urban districts tend to lose,” said Jennifer Jellison Holme, a professor of education policy at the University of Texas in Austin. “It’s hard to recruit middle class families to districts with high poverty.”

In Shelby County, though districts’ enrollment plans are in flux, parents affected by changing boundary lines are frustrated about having already moved in order to send their child to a certain school only to see their school and district assignment changed.

But the suburban advantage is not entirely clear-cut: The new municipal districts must establish their reputations for having good schools while starting from scratch, and potentially with less funds than they initially anticipated.

Some of the new municipal districts will still have significant populations of students who live in poverty. Legacy Shelby County Schools students was more than 38 percent economically disadvantaged, while legacy Memphis City Schools was more than 84 percent economically disadvantaged in 2012-13. As far as the racial demographics go, legacy Memphis City was more than 93 percent minority while legacy Shelby County was 49 percent minority.

Just who will attend the new districts and how that will change the landscape of education in Shelby County, which is also feeling the impact of a new state-run district and a growing charter school sector, remains to be seen.

“We have to let the dust settle,”said Kevin Woods, the chairman of the Shelby County School Board. “We have seven new districts in Shelby County, including the (state-run) ASD, so we are trying to create an environment where you have least amount of disruption possible and then see where kids are actually going to school.”

Research based on other states, including New Jersey, New York, and Florida, indicates that fragmented school districts can drive residential segregation by race and class as middle-class families in an area tend to relocate to more desirable school districts.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if housing prices skyrocketed in some of those more well-off suburbs,” said University of Texas professor Holme.

While each state’s districting practices and laws vary, Holme said that urban areas that are broken into many small districts are often particularly segregated by race and class. In the St. Louis, Mo., metropolitan area, for instance, there are dozens of districts that vary wildly in terms of academic performance and demographics, and many of the poorer districts have been classified as failing by the state.

Still, she said, having a larger system also does not guarantee equity.

Economic development also comes into play. In Baton Rouge, a group in the southeastern part of the city is hoping to carve out a new school system in order to attract employers and workers who, they say, want to send their children to public school, not private school, but are wary of the large urban system.

The Shelby County municipal districts’ policies for enrollment could influence how much the new boundaries drive shifts in housing or economic development. If students from outside the municipalities find it easy to attend those districts, there may be less incentive for them to move.

The new districts have all decided to have some sort of open enrollment policy, which means some students from unincorporated Shelby County or Memphis could attend their schools for free, space permitting. But those parents must provide transportation to go to school – and students who are not zoned to the new municipal districts have no guarantee that they will get a spot.

The discourse around open enrollment in Shelby County has occasionally been racially fraught.

“If you read letters to the editor and listen to some of the conversations, some of the resistance in Germantown, Bartlett and other places to inviting in county school students has had a racial undertone,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science and author of “Opportunity Lost,” a book about Memphis City Schools. “Now we’re starting to get some smoking-gun evidence of racial motivation, but the lawsuit is done.”

Despite some municipal residents’ wariness about drawing in students from outside of their areas, “I think municipalities, if they are wise, and I think they are, would stay with their policies and continue to say, we’re not going to put barriers up,” said Shelby County board member David Reaves.

There is a financial incentive for municipalities to keep the gates open: While the municipalities passed half-cent sales taxes to fund the districts, recent reports from education consultant Southern Educational Strategies demonstrates that the districts may not enroll as many students as they initially anticipated and may thus struggle to fund their districts. The struggle for funds could also lead some municipalities to raise property taxes – though such a change would likely be politically unpopular.

Meanwhile, planning for next year is in full swing. Local board members said the court’s decision, while momentous, was no surprise. Shelby County chair Woods said, “we felt confident that Judge Mays would probably dismiss the lawsuit. But [the decision] lifts any uncertainty about the finality of what’s occurred – that we’re transitioning away from a merged system of 140,000.”

“I think everyone got what they wanted,” said board member Reaves. “The [former Memphis City] district wanted one funding system for the county, and they got it; the municipalities wanted their own districts, and they got it.”

But families, especially those in unincorporated Shelby County, are starting to feel the effects of the rapid changes, and many are distressed.

At a meeting at Kate Bond Middle School, district planner Denise Sharpe showed maps that outlined redistricting that skirt the municipal districts and the state-run district. The rezoning plan places some students in “satellite zones,” meaning they must travel long distances to their new school.

Many parents expressed concern about students traveling long distances and about the academic quality at many of the schools in Memphis.

Parent Kevin Marlowe asked the district if now wouldn’t be an opportune time to reconsider zoning patterns for the entire district to avoid such arrangements. “It looks like we’re fragmenting district even further,” Marlowe said.

Woods said that while some students will have long commutes, the district had sought to minimize the number of families disrupted. Meanwhile, for those forced to switch schools next year, he said, “we’re talking to the municipal districts, saying, ‘Do right by those families.’”

Several board members from the municipal districts have suggested coming to agreements in which they would educate those students zoned to Shelby County Schools who already attend municipal schools, but no agreements have been reached.

Woods also said parents’ dissatisfaction with Memphis schools meant the board needed to focus on improving those schools.

Where these parents choose to enroll their children, and how districts coordinate or compete for them, will eventually determine the new shape of public schools in Shelby County – and the communities that surround those schools.

“Everything is in flux, and it doesn’t all have to do with the suburbs leaving,” said Pohlmann. “It’s hard to predict what Shelby County Schools will look like in five, ten years.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.