school segregation

University of Memphis runs the most segregated elementary school in the city. Will its middle school be more diverse?

PHOTO: Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal
In this 2016 photo, students play tubanos during music class at the University of Memphis Campus School. The university wants to add a middle school.

The University of Memphis is proposing to operate a middle school along with its existing elementary school while boosting student diversity in its programs.

The university’s elementary, Campus School, has the highest percentage of white students in the city, at 66 percent in 2017, and the lowest percentage of students living in poverty, 8 percent the same year. By comparison, about 8 percent of students in Shelby County Schools are white, and 59 percent live in poverty.

That especially matters in Memphis, where schools are more segregated than they were in 1971, when a judge used the racial makeup of schools to order desegregation. A growing body of research shows that segregated schools especially disadvantage students of color.

Remy Debes, a member of the middle school’s steering committee and a philosophy professor, presented the university’s plans for a new middle school to Shelby County Schools board members on Tuesday.

“My wife is Indian and we have biracial children and we have lots of concerns about the diversity inside Campus School. It’s not that it’s horrendous, but it’s not representative of Memphis,” Debes said. “So, the goal here has been from the get-go: How do we create a school that looks more like Memphis?”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The University of Memphis campus.

But the university’s strategies to diversify its proposed middle school have not been tried at the elementary school, prompting questions from some school board members, who have the final say if the Shelby County Schools will contract with the university.

“I understand what your intent is behind the model, but it’s hard for me to understand that if that’s not currently reflected in how Campus School is,” said board chair Shante Avant. “It’d be interesting for me to learn from your committee what your plan is for that. Because if you don’t currently have a student body that is reflective of what you’re saying you want the school to be, how would you get there?”

“Campus Elementary was much more diverse when I was there in the 70s and 80s than it is now,” added school board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “Be intentional. At that time, that first wave post-integration, they were intentionally trying to make sure they would do that.”

The university announced in March it would explore opening a middle school to build off the successes of Campus School, which often ranks among Memphis’ highest-performing on state tests. The school would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

So far, the university plans for a third of students to be children of faculty and staff, a third would come from the neighborhoods in a two-mile radius from the East Memphis school, and a third come be from the rest of the county.

The proposed middle school would give priority to students living in a two-mile radius of the campus and use the university’s existing bus service shown by the blue line. Source: University of Memphis

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in Shelby County Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff. But federal law prohibits explicit race quotas for student enrollment.


Related: Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders


Still, other schools, like the recently opened charter school Crosstown High, have attracted applicants who vary in academic standing, race, and class through community outreach campaigns.

Although Campus School is also open to university service staff who don’t make as much money as faculty, Debes said there’s room to grow in advertising the opportunity to them.

“And that’s one of the things we will work to try to disseminate information about the school — not just to the community and the county but the university faculty and staff,” he said.

“I hope that you will be very targeted in making those families aware that this is out there as an option for them,” McKissack said.

To attend the proposed middle school, students would have to meet three requirements:

  • Satisfactory behavior
  • Fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals
  • On or above grade level scores on the state’s TNReady test or MAPS, a national test on student growth.

Some school board members took issue with some of the admission requirements, saying they are too narrow to attract the diverse student body they are seeking. Debes said that’s why the school would accept teacher recommendations to explain why a student doesn’t meet one of the requirements.

“We recognize that there are lots of brilliant children out there who are looking like they’re falling below grade level precisely because their learning styles are different,” he said. “We have to make sure the parents and families understand that just because you don’t meet those three criteria on official record, doesn’t mean there’s not a chance for your kid to get into that school.”

“I don’t know if a teacher is going to give a letter for a child who has (a poor grade) in conduct,” said board member Stephanie Love.

Debes said the university would look to Shelby County Schools for advice on reaching out to families in the area. But he also doesn’t want nearby schools — such as the sought-after Maxine Smith STEAM Academy — to think the university is poaching their smartest students.

Other details about the makeup of the school include a “project-based learning” curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math where students take fewer tests and do more group work based on solving real-world problems. Funding for the school would be based on Shelby County Schools’ “student-based budgeting” model that is based on student need rather than a fixed amount for every student.

A contract is expected to be discussed during the board’s Nov. 27 work session, with a vote scheduled for Dec. 4.

Voter guide

7 questions Chicagoans should ask their aldermanic candidates about schools

PHOTO: Michal Czerwonka

Big education policy questions about school board control, charter expansion and struggling neighborhood schools have surfaced repeatedly in the race for Chicago mayor. But the city’s aldermanic races, on the whole, tend to be less focused on schools, because some voters don’t connect aldermen to education decisions in their community.

But while aldermanic power is limited when it comes to schools, those officials can still play an important role at Chicago Public Schools and in their wards, as we detailed here.

Here are seven questions and background on them that education-focused voters can ask their aldermanic candidates.

What do you see as the role of an alderman when it comes to Chicago Public Schools?

Legally speaking, alderman don’t have much power over the school district or schools in their ward. They can’t set budgets, hire or fire principals, or decide whether schools open or close. But that doesn’t mean they’re powerless. A dedicated and concerned alderman can do a lot as an advocate for schools.

Related: Chicago alderman have limited power over public schools — but can still play an important role

What do you know about the schools in your ward?

This question can measure how well a candidate or incumbent has engaged with and assessed the needs of area schools. You can’t expect someone to start cooking solutions for area schools if they lack the basic ingredient of familiarity.

How will you spend your aldermanic “menu” money?

Every year, the city gives each alderman a $1.32 budget for infrastructure improvements, known as aldermanic menu money. The ward bosses have discretion over what projects they use it for. Some have tapped the funds for school improvements.  

How will you work to strengthen Local School Councils?

Without an elected school board, the councils are some of the only ways parents and community members can participate in decision-making about their schools. The councils drive school improvement plans, set budgets, and evaluate and hire (or fire) principals. But participation is notoriously low and uneven across the district.

How would you respond to a proposal for a new charter school in your ward?

Aldermen can’t force the school board’s hand on decisions about whether or not to approve charter proposals, but they can express their wishes to the mayor’s office and school board. They also can make it difficult for charters to open in their ward if the charter needs a zoning change to move into or build a new facility.

How will you help attract local families to neighborhood schools losing enrollment?

A district report released in December identifies 238 “underenrolled” schools in Chicago. Many of them are neighborhood schools that serve students living within their attendance boundaries.

How would you help make your ward a place where families with school-aged children want and can afford to live?

Housing costs are one of many reasons families have been leaving Chicago, and a lack of affordable housing in a community could pose a barrier to families with children moving there. Getting a sense of your alderman’s housing policies and approaches to affordability will help discern priorities and seriousness about helping families afford living in your community.

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would reorganize the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High