Chalkbeat

Welcome to Chalkbeat Tennessee, your new home for education news

Dear readers,

We are very excited to introduce Chalkbeat Tennessee, a news site focused on delivering you the most relevant news about education policy and practice right here in our community.

Since first soft-launching in October, we have leapt right to work, hiring two reporters, writing stories about lots of change in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, and (as you can see) building a lovely new website to improve your reading experience.

This is an exciting period for Tennessee schools. In 2010, as part of the Race to the Top initiative, Tennessee received $501 million to fund several initiatives to turn around low-performing schools, improve teacher quality, and provide more school choice for students. Meanwhile, less than a year after Shelby County Schools underwent one of the largest school system mergers in the country, six municipalities are splitting to form their own school systems.

To hone our efforts, we have selected three areas of focus that each of our reporters will cover over the next year: implementation of the Common Core, admissions and enrollment, and efforts to improve teachers’ effectiveness.

  • Tennessee’s adoption of Common Core has fundamentally changed what students learn in the classroom. Our entire team will be exploring how those changes affect teachers’ jobs, schools’ test scores, and taxpayers’ pockets.
  • Tennessee’s legislature has opened the doors to the creation of new school districts, charter schools, and a state-run district. That’s created more choice for parents. Jaclyn Zubrzycki will be exploring how parents navigate those choices and what these changes mean for the state’s lowest-performing students.
  • Finally, Tennessee’s teachers are undergoing dramatic changes in how they’re hired, placed, supported, and evaluated. Tajuana Cheshier will be reporting on how effective those efforts are in improving Tennessee’s teaching force.

But our stories will be strongest if we get your help. Here are a few ways to pitch in:

First, meet our community editor, Tajuana Cheshier, who will be creating more opportunities for you to interact with our reporters, share your experiences, and help deepen our coverage of public schools. To start, please consider submitting to our new First Person section, which will highlight the experiences of teachers, administrators, students, policymakers, and parents. To find out more or pitch an idea, e-mail Tajuana at [email protected].

Another way to share your experiences and thoughts with us is through our comments section. Here is a look at our comments policy, which we will be enforcing aggressively with the help of our engagement director, Anika Anand. We want Chalkbeat Tennessee to be a place where educators, policymakers, and families can come to voice their concerns, talk to one another and ultimately, act in a way that leads to better schools for everyone. So please, be courteous and respectful in your comments so that we can all learn something from each other.

Here are some other ways to stay up to date on our reporting and help us make our reporting the best it can be:

  • Sign up for our morning Rise & Shine newsletter, which includes the day’s major education Tennessee and national headlines.
  • Follow us on Twitter  and Like us on Facebook
  • Got a story idea for us? Send an e-mail to [email protected]
  • Fill out our survey to tell us what stories you want to read and learn more about Chalkbeat.

Happy reading,

Daarel Burnette II, Chalkbeat Tennessee bureau chief

Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat editor-in-chief

Chalkbeat

Coming soon (and hiring now): Chalkbeat in Chicago and Newark

Top: Chicago skyline via Flickr/Carroll. Bottom: Newark via Wikimedia Commons/Jamaalcobbs

Dear readers,

We have some exciting news: After hearing from community leaders across the country, we’ve selected the next two places where we’ll launch Chalkbeat coverage.

By early 2018 — just a year after launching in Detroit, our fifth city — we’ll have Chalkbeat coverage in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

The timing couldn’t be better. Both Chicago and Newark are in the midst of sweeping changes with far-reaching consequences for students and families, educators, and communities.

Chicago is living an education paradox: Poverty, violence, and deep segregation present steep challenges for students, their families, and their schools. After a last-minute budget deal, the city school district remains on the brink of financial disaster. At the same time, Chicago boasts one of the fastest-improving big city school systems in the nation, a conclusion so unexpected that a Stanford researcher double-checked his work before confirming it.

Amid these highs and lows, Chicago’s public schools face a slew of changes at every level of the school system. In the K-12 system, school closures and bureaucratic overhauls have made a complicated system more confusing for many families. City officials also want to lead the country by dramatically growing the number of children enrolled in public prekindergarten, and, controversially, by not allowing students to graduate unless they have a plan for what to do next.

In Newark, meanwhile, an effort to overhaul the local schools with performance pay for teachers and more charter schools — driven in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 — initially led to a three-year test score decline that has recently bounced back and turned positive in English, according to a new study.

Today, one third of Newark students are enrolled in charter schools, one of the highest percentages in the country. The school district, meanwhile, is returning to the control of a locally elected school board after years of being run by state-appointed managers. As we’re seeing in Detroit, where a similar transition is underway, the shift to local control comes with great optimism — and high stakes.

Both cities have important stories that the whole country can learn from. But while there are talented journalists producing great stories about education in both Chicago and Newark, both cities lack the depth of coverage they will need to navigate so much change.

Chicago recently lost a longtime news source dedicated to covering schools, Catalyst. And the two major Chicago newspapers have seen their reporting teams diminish significantly, in keeping with trends in newsrooms across the country. The local public radio station, WBEZ, has admirably stepped up to fill gaps, creating a dedicated education reporting team. But there is much more in-depth daily reporting to be done.

In Newark, the local newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has also seen its reporting resources diminish in recent years. And while a laudable nonprofit news organization, NJ Spotlight, has offered thoughtful and high-impact coverage of education across New Jersey, dedicated education coverage by and for Newark has been unsettlingly scarce, especially for a city that is so often in the national headlines.

Community leaders in Chicago and Newark asked us to launch Chalkbeat coverage in their cities because they want to change that. So do we. As we expand our coverage, our goal is to scrutinize and explain what’s changing, what’s working, and what’s at stake as the cities’ schools transform. Readers in Chicago and Newark also deserve to hear — and share — firsthand accounts of the parents, students, and teachers who are living through the changes.

For Chalkbeat’s readers in our five existing locations and across the country, the expansion means that we’ll be connecting even more local dots through our national coverage. Our new national newsletter — sign up now!— will be a great place to read the highlights from Chicago and Newark and learn how how they fit into the unfolding national story of efforts to improve education for poor children.

The growth also means that we’re hiring. We’re already looking to fill two new positions, story editor and Detroit reporter, and have some other roles open, too. Now, we’re opening searches for someone to lead our team in Chicago and a senior reporter in Newark, where we’re launching a one-year pilot as we explore more permanent coverage. If you or someone you know is a fit for any of these positions, let us know now. We are lucky to work with some of the most talented journalists in the country, and we can’t wait to expand our team.

And for our future readers in Chicago and Newark — we won’t be able to do this without you. If you have ideas for us, feel free to reach out now. You can also sign up here to to get updates about our launches in Chicago, Newark, or both.

This post has been updated to more accurately describe the findings of a recent study of Newark school reforms.

Student count

Aurora school enrollment continues sharp decline, but budget woes not expected

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The number of students enrolled in Aurora schools this fall dropped by almost twice as much as last year, part of a trend district officials have blamed in part on gentrification as housing prices in Aurora climb.

This year, as of Oct. 2, the district has enrolled 41,294 students from preschool through 12th grade. That’s 867 fewer students than last year — and almost twice the number of students lost between 2015 and 2016.

Last October, staff told the board that district enrollment had dropped by a historic amount. At the time, enrollment was 41,926, down 643 from 2015. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district had enrolled almost 200 more students.

But in Colorado, school districts are given money on a per-student count that’s based on the number of students enrolled on count day, which this year was Oct. 2.

The district expects to see a similar decline in students again next school year, but expects that new developments start bringing more children to the district in the future.

The good news, provided in the update given to the Aurora school board Tuesday night, is that district officials saw it coming this time.

“The magnitude of the impact is not the same as last year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “This kind of decline is now something we will predict and budget to.”

Because enrollment numbers are higher than what officials predicted, the budget that the board approved over the summer should not need adjustments for the current year.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools had to cut more than $3 million in the middle of the year. District officials also worked on gathering input and finding ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by up to $31 million, but better than expected funding from the state meant the district didn’t end up cutting the full $31 million.

The district may look for ways to trim the budget again next year in anticipation of another anticipated enrollment decline.

Board members asked about other factors that may be contributing to enrollment declines, such as school reputations, and asked about how staff predict future enrollment.

Superintendent Munn told the board that the enrollment decreases are changing several conversations in the district.

“APS was not in the business of marketing our schools,” Munn said. But this year, the district launched an interactive map with school information on the district website to help feature all schools, their programs and their performance measures, and has been doing outreach to the approximately 4,000 Aurora students who leave to attend neighboring districts.

Three schools also received district-level help in creating targeted marketing.

One of those three schools was South Middle School, a low-performing school in the northwest part of the district where enrollment declines are especially drastic.

This year, after receiving some marketing assistance, South was one of few schools in the district that saw enrollment increased. The school’s Oct. 2 enrollment was 825, up from 734 last year.