Future of Schools

Parents hear opposing perspectives on proposed Memphis charter conversions

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Parents and community members listen to discussion Tuesday evening about the future of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary schools in Memphis.

Felicia Johnson came to a community meeting Tuesday evening to learn about the future of the middle school attended by her two sons. Raleigh Egypt Middle is one of six struggling Memphis schools that could be converted into charters in 2016 under a proposal unveiled last week by the state’s Achievement School District.

But like most parents in attendance, she’d rather the school stay under the control of Shelby County Schools, without state intervention, even though Raleigh Egypt is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools academically.

“The principal that’s there now at Raleigh Egypt Middle, he’s only been there a year,” Johnson said. “And in the year he’s been there, he’s made progress.”

Tuesday’s gathering was the first of four community meetings planned during the next week to introduce parents to the ASD’s proposal, seek community input and answer questions about potential conversions. About 200 people attended the forum hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children.

The hour-long discussion, preceded by a dinner of pizza and soft drinks provided by BAEO, oscillated between a carefully orchestrated presentation by ASD officials and passionate outbursts by Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love. Love questioned the wisdom of targeting Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary — two schools that she says are improving without state intervention.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions during the meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told the crowd that no decision will be made about the schools until December after receiving community input on what’s best for the schools and the students.

“All tonight is about is figuring out what is the best option,” he said. “That’s what the goal is over the next several weeks and months. If that best option is continuing what’s happening, then good. If a school can get better just like it is, then we’re open to that. All we’re trying to do is make the best decision.”

Love argued that the two schools would be better served by the local district because both of their principals are implementing turnaround plans.

“I believe in the teachers, I believe in the principals, I believe in the parents. And I am in full support of Shelby County Schools keeping control of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary School,” Love said, prompting a standing ovation from most of the crowd.

State BAEO director Mendell Grinter, who served as moderator, told parents that the relationship between the ASD and Shelby County Schools is not a hostile one.

“Our conversation shouldn’t get into Shelby County Public Schools versus the Achievement School District,” Grinter said. “They’re not enemies; oftentimes they’ve worked together. They’re going to have to work together in this process if we’re going to be successful in making sure our kids are getting a quality education.”

Both Grinter and Barbic emphasized the importance of community involvement in determining the best pathway to achieve student improvement. Everyone in attendance received an application to participate in the ASD’s new neighborhood advisory councils, which will have input on which charter operators potentially could be matched with each school. The deadline to apply for the councils is Sept. 21.

Attendees also received information sheets about the ASD, as well as a glossary defining terms such as “charter operator” and “TVAAS.”

The community meetings are part of the ASD’s new community engagement process designed to give parents and other stakeholders more input in important decisions regarding the future of their schools. In previous years, the district hosted community meetings to announce that the schools were being taken from local district control for state-authorized charter conversion, prompting angry outbursts and protests from teachers and parents. This year’s meetings are to discuss the possibility.

“Our job is to not tell you what’s going to happen,” said Barbic, who was also applauded occasionally by the crowd. “Our only goal tonight is for everyone to understand what the process is moving forward.”

Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.

Previous community meetings were held at schools, while this year’s gatherings are in neighborhood churches.

Audience members were given notecards to write down questions and concerns, and Grinter read them aloud. Some wanted to know how the state’s TVAAS model for measuring growth works. Others asked what would happen to their students and teachers if the school is removed from Shelby County Schools and placed under the state’s oversight.

Barbic answered most questions, saying any student at a school chosen for conversion has the option to stay there or transfer to another school. All teachers can re-apply to their school, but the new charter operator has full autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing.

The meeting drew different opinions from people in attendance.

“The answers to the questions are still not clear, but I think what they did tonight was give me an open eye to what’s really going on,” said Johnnie Hatten, a Frayser community member who has been active in the Memphis Lift parent advocacy group. “Nobody disagreed that the scores were not right. The schools are failing our kids.”

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson was more skeptical. “It’s more of a tactic than it is necessarily a meeting for families,” said the Memphis Democrat. “It’s a meeting so that they can say there was a meeting.”

Here are the other schools named for possible conversion and the schedule of community meetings planned to discuss them:

Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools — Thursday, Sept. 17, 6-8 p.m., The Place of Outpouring at Olivet Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church, 4450 Knight Arnold Road

Hillcrest High School — Saturday, Sept. 19, 12-2 p.m., Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, 3890 Millbranch Road

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School — Tuesday, Sept. 22, 6-8 p.m., Mount Austin Missionary Baptist Church, 1178 Breedlove St.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.