Future of Schools

Board debates whether money or academics should determine charter school expansion

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Shelby County Schools board members David Pickler and David Reaves were not happy that the board voted to give a lease to a charter school group with no proven academic record.

The Shelby County Schools board leased a contested building to a new charter school with no academic track record because it was willing to pay more money than a charter school with five years of proven academic results.

The contentious decision brought into sharp relief the need for a coherent district policy that determines which charter schools get first dibs on empty school buildings, board members and the superintendent said Tuesday. With the likelihood that its charter sector will grow while the district continues to move out of school buildings in an effort to consolidate strained resources,  several board members said Tuesday they planned to hold a special meeting to develop a policy within the next month.

The board granted the year-old W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools, which faced several controversies last year, a $693,390.90 lease to the former Lanier Middle School building despite the objections of several board members who were angry it was chosen without any academic data to support the decision. TCAP scores won’t be publicly released until later this month, so W.E.B. DuBois didn’t have test results for board members to examine.

“Now we don’t know what the hell we are getting,” board member David Reaves was overheard saying to district administrators after Tuesday’s meeting.

Freedom Preparatory Academy had also tried to lease the space but decided that the price the district was asking would be too high for the number of students it currently serves.

This was the first time that two charter schools had been vying to lease the same space in the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson admitted that Freedom Preparatory Academy has five more years of data demonstrating strong academic results, but given the district’s significant financial needs, he offered the space to to W.E.B. Dubois instead.

“We started from the premise that the two charter schools were essentially offering the same thing, absent a policy,” Hopson said.

Board member David Pickler said that he thought the superintendent’s reasoning was backwards and that the board should offer preferences to charter schools with proven results, rather than those who offered the most money for a lease. “I hope I’m hearing that wrong,” he said.

“One school is offering five bucks a square foot, the other one a dollar,” said Hopson. “More importantly [W.E.B. Dubois’] plan is to purchase the building.” 

In the past the board had asked Hopson to take into consideration the impact of leaving empty buildings in already-blighted neighborhood, giving W.E.B. Dubois’ lease-purchase agreement a leg up.

Freedom Preparatory Academy is currently located in the former Lakeview School but “was busting at the seems this year,” according to board Chairman Cardell Orrin. Orrin thinks Freedom Preparatory would better be able to serve its students by moving into a single building such as Lanier, as it grows from a school that serves grades 6-9 to a school that serves grades 6-12. Freedom Preparatory was one of three middle schools in the state to be recognized by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2013 for its strong academic record.

But the district was asking Freedom Preparatory to pay rent that would’ve worked out to be about 30 percent of the amount of money it brings in from the state at its current enrollment, according to Orrin. So Freedom Preparatory decided not to accept the district’s proposed lease and will instead split its school into two different sites in the coming year, one of which will be in a church.

“We’re disappointed,” Orrin said about Tuesday’s decision.

The W.E.B DuBois Consortium, led by former mayor Willie Herenton, has faced several major challenges in its first year including having to close a middle and high school it had opened in the district’s former Northside High School.

It is currently paying back around a half million dollars that it owed to Shelby County Schools after it over-projected the number of students it would enroll last year by a wide margin, according to the district CFO Alicia Lindsey.

Multiple board members said the repayment agreement with Herenton was bad business and similar agreements should be voted on by the board in the future. “If somebody owes you money you don’t do business with them,” said board member Billy Orgel.

The first time a vote was called on the proposed lease to W.E.B. Dubois, there were only two votes in favor after six votes had been tallied and it looked like it would fail. But just before the final vote was spoken, Hopson made it clear that, with less than three weeks before the start of school, 600 students from W.E.B. Dubois wouldn’t have a school building and the board would have to meet again to find another location for those students.

The motion passed with four votes in favor, the minimum needed for a motion to pass.

Chris Caldwell, Teresa Jones, Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods voted for the motion while Pickler and Reaves voted against it. Shante Avant abstained.

Four individuals who identified themselves as representatives of W.E.B Dubois left the board meeting right after the motion passed, but declined to comment, other than to say they were relieved that it passed.

“It was pretty touch and go for a minute,” one of them said in the parking lot.

Avant abstained from both votes, saying she had heard from worried parents  in her district at both charter schools. “Freedom Preparatory has a proven track record while parents at W.E.B Dubois are waiting to find out what school their child will attend,” said Avant. “It’s a hard decision. We need policies in place and not make these decisions on a case by case basis.”

Avant is facing reelection in less than a month.

In the long term Pickler said that there very may well be 40, 50, or even 60 charter schools in the district and the board needs to call a special meeting to clarify its position. “[Charter schools] are becoming the 8th district” in Shelby County, said Pickler after the meeting. “And we’ve been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.”

Hopson rebutted the view that Memphis will become a charter school district. “I hope we don’t turn into New Orleans…When you really dig into the numbers, if charter schools were performing significantly different than our schools, then that would be a different discussion.”

In other actions, the board agreed to let Vision Preparatory Charter School move into the former Riverview Elementary.

The board also approved the opening of seven new charter schools in 2015, including Aspire, Excel Center, Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Leadership Prep, Libertas, MASS, Sankore Collegiate.

They denied four amended charter school applications: Emerge Collegiate Schools, Memphis Global Leadership Academy for Architecture and Urban Design, Military Academy of Culture and Technology, and Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation Middle School.

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

listening tour

Estos padres quieren eliminar los obstáculos para hispanohablantes en las escuelas de Detroit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Un aguacero no pudo detener estas madres el martes. Asistieron una discusión sobre las escuelas en Detroit.

To read this story in English, click here.

Si te parece difícil navegar el sistema escolar de Detroit, imagínate como es cuando nadie habla tu idioma.

Una discusión el martes sobre los obstáculos que enfrentan los estudiantes que hablan español en Detroit dejó en claro que sus padres también se encuentran problemas parecidos.

Los padres que se presentaron en el edificio de Brilliant Detroit quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer y hablar en inglés, pero afirmaron que es mucho más difícil hacerlo cuando no se pueden comunicar con las escuelas.

“Uno siente que no tiene valor,” dijo Gloria Vera, hablando de sus interacciones con maestros angloparlantes. “Te sientes que tienes menos oportunidades para hacer preguntas. Yo por ejemplo me da miedo.”

Varias madres confesaron inquietudes sobre los efectos de la ley de lectura de Michigan, que podrá retrasar a estudiantes del tercer grado si su nivel de lectura no es suficientemente alto para el año que viene. Según una investigadora, un 70 por ciento de estudiantes que hablan español en Michigan podrán ser retrasados.

Una madre dijo que quiere apoyar a su hija mientras aprende a leer, pero se preocupaba que su propio nivel de inglés estaba demasiado bajo.

Otra, Delia Barba, sospecha que su hija tiene una discapacidad de aprendizaje, pero afirma que su escuela en el suroeste de Detroit, un barrio mayormente hispanohablante, todavía no la ha examinado.

Barba — como casi todos las madres que asistieron el evento — dijo que las escuelas deben contratar más empleados bilingües.

“No sabemos con quién hablar,” Barba dijo. “No hablan español.”

Chalkbeat, un periódico en linea que se enfoca en las escuelas de Detroit, está recorriendo la ciudad, preguntándoles a padres cuáles asuntos debemos investigar. Esta vez, Chalkbeat fue acompañado por organizaciones centradas en el barrio “Southwest.” Juntos, iniciamos una discusión con docenas de padres, mayormente madres hispanohablantes. Vinieron a la sede de Brilliant Detroit por la mañana, a pesar de un aguacero.

Algunas de las presentes ya habían colaborado con organizaciones locales como Congress of Communities y el Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation para insistir que los líderes del distrito de Detroit expanden acceso para familias que hablan español. Apuntaron que sus preguntas fueron ignorados por administraciones pasadas.

“Los residentes de la comunidad se sienten frustrados en 2018, porque han expresado la necesidad de acceso al idioma en repetidas ocasiones a lo largo de los años y una resolución es continuamente ignorada,” dijo Elizabeth Rojas, una organizadora que también es una madre del distrito. “Sabemos que los estudiantes se van de nuestra ciudad para asistir a los distritos escolares en los suburbios. Si fortalecemos nuestros servicios de idiomas, estamos seguros de que muchas más familias regresarán al distrito.”

En una reunión el mes pasado, el superintendente de escuelas Nikolai Vitti señaló que iba a establecer un “hotline” – linea telefónica – en español y que cada escuela con estudiantes que hablan español iba a contratar a un empleado hispanohablante en la oficina central, entre otras promesas.

Al recibir los resultados de una encuesta en el barrio, los padres ahora se están enfocando en la pregunta de seguridad en las escuelas. Esperan que las escuelas contratarán a más policías bilingües, y que padres que no tienen papeles serán permitidos entrar en las escuelas con una tarjeta de identificación alternativa, por ejemplo un pasaporte mexicano o un ID proporcionado por el mismo distrito.

El martes, los padres reportaron que también hay una falta de servicios bilingües en las escuelas “charter” en el suroeste de Detroit. Angelina Romero, quien llegó con su familia de México en los últimos años, se preocupaba que su hijo del primer grado no está aprendiendo inglés en una escuela “charter,” y que tenía dificultades en comunicarse con su maestra.

“Ojalá que las familias que asistieron este evento se dan cuenta que hay padres en otras escuelas y en otras partes de la ciudad que también quieren más servicios bilingües,” dijo Jametta Lilly, directora del Detroit Parent Network, uno de los anfitriones del evento.

Para Gloria Vera, fue aun más difícil navegar el sistema de educación especializada por la presencia de una barrera lingüística. Su hija recibió un diagnosis de autismo, pero cuando se presentó a la escuela le dijeron que no había suficiente espacio.

“Me dijeron, no puedes matricular tu hija aquí,” dijo Vera.

Le dieron un número de teléfono para llamar, pero Vera dudaba que la ayudara.

“No sabía inglés,” explicó. “Me sentía perdida.”

Encima de la discusión se cernía la ley de lectura del tercer grado. Para estos padres, nunca iba a ser fácil ayudar a sus niños a aprender a leer en un segundo idioma — pero la ley aumentó la presión.

Yesenia Hernandez afirmó que lee a su hija de segundo grado en inglés, pero se preocupaba que su pronunciación no es perfecta.

“Ella está aprendiendo, y yo la estoy confundiendo,” dijo.

Trabajando a lado de cinco madres, Hernandez creó una lista de las maneras en que su escuela podría ayudarle a ayudar a sus hijos. Otros grupos trabajaban en sus propias listas, y cuando compararon los resultados, se notaba muchas semejanzas. Por lo general, los padres querían comunicarse con las escuelas en español, y pidieron recursos — como clases de inglés para adultos  — cuyos beneficios se trasladarían a sus hijos. Un grupo apuntó la “sala de padres” de Priest Elementary-Middle School, donde padres que hablan español pueden reunir para compartir información y recursos.

Quieren apoyar a sus hijos mientras aprenden a leer, pero los padres admitieron que sienten inciertos sobre los efectos de la ley del tercer grado, que iniciará el año que viene. ¿Si sus hijos fueron retrasados al tercer grado, cómo serían afectados?

Para Delia Barba, no había problema: “¿Qué pasa si dicen pasa, pasa, pasa, y no sabe cómo leer?” preguntó.

Pero Gloria Vera tenía dudas. En su barrio, aproximadamente 80 por ciento de los estudiantes hablan español en casa. ¿Cuántos iban a ser regresados?

“En esta parte de Detroit, debe haber una solución,” dijo.