changeup

Enrollment rises in Shelby County Schools for first time since suburban split

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michelle Edwards instructs fourth-graders at Bruce Elementary School, which has a hundred more students this year. The classroom was one of seven empty ones last year at the Memphis school, compared to just one this year.

Every year since the massive 2013 merger of schools in Memphis and Shelby County, enrollment for the consolidated district has dropped.

Most precipitous was the whopping 34,000 students who left the new Shelby County Schools in 2014 as six suburban towns formed their own school systems in a shakeup known as the “de-merger.”

Another 11,000 students were siphoned off gradually by Tennessee’s turnaround district, which has taken over low-performing Memphis schools annually since 2012.

But this school year, for the first time since the merger, the shrinkage stopped — and even reversed course a little.

Enrollment for district-run schools is 92,400, up by 2,000 students, according to preliminary numbers provided by Shelby County Schools. It’s a modest but serendipitous gain for a district that is Tennessee’s largest but was bracing for another small decline.

Add in charter schools, and the total enrollment is just under 107,000, a 2 percent increase from last year. (Charters make up a fourth of Shelby County Schools. They are public schools that are privately managed. All of the totals are based on the 20th day of the school year and are still being finalized.)

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson calls the increase a significant victory, especially considering that the district started the school year behind on enrollment. The higher student count already has translated into $7.6 million more in state funding than expected, he said.

“Just to be able to say we’ve stopped the bleeding this year and actually be on the trajectory to increasing attendance speaks to the work that’s going on in our schools,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

District leaders hope this year’s enrollment starts an upward trend after years of losing students.

The decline was not new. Under the former Memphis City Schools, fewer and fewer students were attending public schools in the years leading up to the merger.

Although it remains to be seen whether the uptick can be sustained, this year’s reversal was no accident. Shelby County Schools has worked feverishly to attract and retain students as the city’s educational landscape has splintered and the climate has grown friendlier to school choice.

The district invested $150,000 toward marketing and training principals to sell their schools through a campaign known as “Retain, Recruit & Reclaim.” The effort takes a page out of the charter school playbook on recruiting students to their classrooms.

"This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students."Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students,” Hopson said. “There’s a lot conversation in Memphis about choice. And we want to make sure our families and constituents know we have great choices also. That’s something to be proud of.”

Bruce Elementary saw the largest jump in enrollment among district-run schools. As a result, just one classroom sits empty at the midtown school, compared to seven last year.

About half of its hundred new students came from Carnes Elementary, which closed in May. The rest were drawn by extracurricular activities or experiences during this year’s summer learning academy, said principal Archie Moss.

“Constant recruitment is a part of the job,” Moss said. “You have to sell what’s so unique about your school.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The former Raleigh Egypt Middle School is back to housing middle schoolers under Shelby County Schools, not the state-run Achievement School District and its charter operator, Memphis Scholars.

Hopson’s administration also cites the Achievement School District’s enrollment decline as one reason behind the growth of Shelby County Schools. The state’s turnaround district paused on school takeovers last year and closed two of its charter schools, sending about 350 children elsewhere. And when its state-run charter in Raleigh moved across town, most of those students transferred to locally run Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, Hopson said.

An estimated 150 students came district-wide from the new summer learning academy, according to Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations.

“We strategically extended invitations to all students, even private school students, for them to see what Shelby County Schools has to offer,” Ray said.

Enrollment in Memphis’ charter schools increased from 13,900 to more than 14,400, or about 4 percent, based on preliminary numbers. That brings charter school enrollment to 13 percent of students in Shelby County Schools.

Hopson said the overall trend has potential to continue — if the district can also continue to improve its academics.

“We don’t just want to be trying to poach numbers and run the score up,” he said. “We want to make sure these kids are coming back to and they’re afforded high-quality options.”

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”