war of attrition

A council bill and a looming report thrust ‘backfill’ into charter-school debate

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
City Councilman Mark Levine, who is sponsoring a charter-school enrollment transparency bill.

A Teach for America alum on the City Council is packing the legislative punch behind a new campaign aimed at pressuring charter schools to serve more high-needs students.

Councilman Mark Levine introduced a transparency bill in January that would shed light on how often charter schools and some district schools “backfill” vacant seats with new students. Meanwhile, a parent group backed by a prominent former charter-school CEO is planning to release an analysis of enrollment data that could lend new urgency to a debate that has long divided the charter sector.

Levine’s bill would also require the city to release data on how many students leave and are replaced in gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools. Together, a bigger set of public information about how students enter and leave schools would help parents and the public better evaluate city schools and their test scores, he said.

“If all you know about the schools are the test scores, and you don’t have any information about their backfill and attrition rates, then you don’t have the complete picture of school performance,” Levine, who represents Harlem and Morningside Heights, said in an interview.

Filling the seats of students who leave a school isn’t required, but some charter school operators believe backfilling is essential to fulfill the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. And not filling seats means schools receive less public money to operate, making a no-backfill policy impossible for many schools.

Christina Reyes, founder and executive director of Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said she backfills for financial and ideological reasons. Not doing so is unfair to district schools that are usually obligated to accept students throughout the year, she said.

“If a district school doesn’t have a choice, why is it OK that we have a choice?” Reyes said.

The argument against backfill is that it can disrupt a carefully cultivated school culture and make it difficult for new students to catch up. Schools belonging to some charter management organizations, such as Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, have rejected backfilling in many grades — although both networks say they have begun filling more seats in recent years.

Levine’s bill represents a middle-of-road approach to regulating the city’s charter-school sector, whose growth is roundly opposed by many of Levine’s colleagues on the council. Education committee chair Daniel Dromm, who last week sent letters to charter schools seeking financial information about their operations, wants to pass a symbolic resolution to call on the state legislature to “reject any attempt to raise the cap on the number of charter schools.”

Last month, the parent group Democracy Builders, founded by former Democracy Prep CEO Seth Andrew, started an online petition to support Levine’s bill and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued that all charter schools should backfill. Democracy Builders wants to require charter schools to backfill students, which would likely require changes to the state charter law.

That’s a step too far for Levine, who was a member of Teach for America’s second-ever cohort in 1991 and taught for two years at P.S. 146 (He also served a brief stint as executive director of Teach for America’s New York office in 2002). Levine said at this point he’s just looking for more data about the scope of the issue.

“I’m not prescribing a remedy here,” Levine said. “I think we need to get the data first. We can’t even have a reasonable conversation on the policy without it.”

Democracy Builders does have some data at its disposal. The organization is finishing an analysis of enrollment data from 2006 to 2014, and sources who have reviewed it say it could have a significant effect on the way state test scores are used to compare charter schools, particularly those belonging to some charter management organizations that don’t backfill.

That analysis has not yet been made public, but Democracy Builders Executive Director Princess Lyles said it will show how well schools hold onto students, or replace the ones who leave, and what effect that has on state proficiency rates, Lyles said.

“Generally speaking, we see that proficiency rates are going up as student enrollment is going down,” said Lyles, who added that she expected the analysis to be available later this month.

That context that is absent when the state releases its test scores each year, and schools with the highest proficiency rates routinely cite their performance on those tests as evidence that their model is working.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said he supported the initiative, though he said Levine’s bill is flawed because it doesn’t require the same data for all city public schools. (Levine says he’s revising the bill to include them.) Merriman said the data should also show when students when students enter and leave schools, to rebut criticism of schools pushing students out before state tests, and show where students go when they leave charter schools.

“We are supportive of increased transparency and welcome additional data in regards to student enrollment that further helps put student achievement into perspective,” Merriman said in a statement.

 

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.