Charter applications

Shelby County school board approves three charter schools, denies one

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Board chairman Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson listen to a budget presentation in 2015.

Three charter operators whose requests to open schools in Memphis were rejected in May got the green light to move forward on Tuesday evening from Shelby County Schools Board of Education.

Promise Academy got permission to open a third location with elementary school grades; Memphis Business Academy will open an elementary school with a science, technology, engineering and math focus; and Memphis Delta Preparatory will open its first school, for K-8. All propose to open in 2016.

The board turned down a fourth application, from Omni Schools, for a second time, with district officials saying that the network’s existing schools are too low-performing to warrant an expansion.

“Given their performance, we felt it was in the kids’ best interest to hold these schools accountable, to fix these schools and raise them up, before opening more,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who makes recommendations to the board about which charter schools should be allowed to open.

The board’s decisions underscore the challenge of ensuring that nonprofit operators running local charter schools are up to the job. When Promise, Memphis Business and Memphis Delta first applied, the board sent them away to rework parts of their proposals in order to meet criteria. For example, Promise Academy strengthened their academic plan for science and social studies in their reapplication to gain approval.

Omni Schools had applied to open a high school in the Raleigh-Frayser area of north Memphis. Its elementary and middle school, located in the same area, are on the state priority list because their test scores rank them in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

Omni Schools co-founder Cary Booker said he was disappointed that the application was denied and that the organization plans to reapply in the future.

“We’ve had a lot of demand from current parents for a high school,” said Booker, who is the older brother of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. “We have concerns about the fairness of the process and have expressed that to the board. We have assurances from them that they will look into concerns.”

Booker said a main concern was that Omni was denied an interview with the district during the review process, while the other charter organizations with applications were granted interviews.

At the board meeting, Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, said Omni was not offered an interview because the district did not have additional questions.

Several board members expressed concerns over the application process, especially the choice to deny Omni Prep an interview. All five board members present voted to approve the three charters and deny Omni, although Misha Clay Bibbs said she had some major issues with the process before she cast her vote.

“There are a lot of problems around this process I want to discuss, but today, I’m voting yes,” Bibbs said.

Omni Prep Academy Lower and Middle Schools almost shuttered their doors this year as they were on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools, making their closure mandatory this summer under a 2014 state law. However, a new law gave districts the authority to choose whether or not to close low-performing charter schools, giving Omni Schools and two other charter schools a year for redemption.

An added wrinkle is that every new charter school that opens competes with schools run by the district for students — and their associated state funding. That means the board is in some ways voting against its financial interests when it allows new charter schools to open.

Charter applications
Charter applications

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.