Charter hopefuls

Thirteen applicants vie to open charter schools with Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Michelle McKissack, a board member of Crosstown High School Inc., speaks in May with supporters of the proposed new high school for midtown Memphis.

While Shelby County Schools revoked the charters of four schools this year, the district also has been taking applications for new charter schools, viewed as a potential tool to drive up the quality of public education in Memphis.

Thirteen applications are under review as the school board prepares to approve or deny them in August. They include a homegrown, philanthropically supported group seeking to establish the proposed Crosstown High School in midtown, as well as three out-of-state charter networks currently operating Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Quality will be central to the screening process, according to Brad Leon, the district’s strategy and innovation chief.

The district’s request for applications declared that Shelby County Schools is “only interested in authorizing charter schools that we believe can reach the top quartile of performance in the state.”

That’s a high bar for a district that has a high concentration of schools in Tennessee’s bottom quartile. But in 2014-15, Shelby County Schools saw academic gains in every subject except reading, and administrators are looking for engines that can help continue that trajectory.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are tuition-free. In Tennessee, they are mostly authorized by local school districts.

In Memphis, the prospect of opening new charter schools creates public perception challenges amid budget constraints and the recent closure of four district-authorized charter schools for low performance. But Leon said the focus needs to stay on quality.

“We’ve got to do both. We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options,” he said.

Leon will make his recommendations to the school board during a June 21 work session. Operators can amend their applications based on the feedback before decisions are made in August.

Inherent in the screening process will be the search for operators who can can help the district reach its goals under Destination 2025. The strategic plan aims by 2025 to have 80 percent of seniors college or career-ready, 90 percent of students graduating on time, and 100 percent of college or career-ready seniors enrolled in a post-secondary opportunity.

The request for applications emphasized that the “most urgent area of need relates to reading language arts at all tested grade levels.” Increasing the district’s ACT scores also was cited as an area of need in preparing students for post-secondary opportunities.

"We have to authorize high-quality options. We have to close low-quality options. "Brad Leon, strategy and innovation chief

Leon said a common theme among applications is an emphasis on STEM education — or science, technology, engineering and math. While the district did not solicit that particular focus, national trends have shifted toward those areas to prepare students for projected job growth in those fields.

The applicants include five vying to open schools in Hickory Hill, an area in southeast Memphis that has seen population growth in recent years.

Three national operators authorized in Memphis by the state-run ASD are seeking local authorization under Shelby County Schools: Green Dot, Pathways in Education and Scholar Academies.

Shelby County Schools and the ASD already have several operators in common, including KIPP, Gestalt, Freedom Prep and Promise Academy.

The applicants are:

  • Crosstown High School Inc. — The college prep high school proposed for midtown Memphis would feature partnerships with noted health care organizations slated to operate in the newly renovated Crosstown Concourse development.
  • Green Dot Public Schools — The Hickory Hill-area high school would be a feeder for Kirby Middle and Wooddale Middle, two of the four schools that Green Dot operates under the ASD.
  • Pathways in Education — The alternative school operator has two charters under the ASD that opened in 2014.
  • Scholar Academies — Memphis Scholars Charter School would be an elementary and middle school in South Memphis seeking a full enrollment of 675 students.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy — The grades 6-12 school would focus on science technology, engineering, arts and math, as well as developing leadership skills, under the helm of Tamika Carwell, a former principal and teacher with Memphis City Schools.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The elementary school proposed for Hickory Hill would be the fifth by the operator, known for weaving business and economics across curriculum.
  • Memphis Business Academy Inc. — The middle school in Hickory Hill would complete the feeder pattern of the operator, which already has elementary and high schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.
  • Life Preparatory Academy of Excellence — The grades 5-8 school in Hickory Hill would have an emphasis on math and literacy, doubling class time in both subjects and offering classes in life skills.
  • The LeFlore Foundation — The Gentleman and Ladies Academy School would operate in Cordova, serving grades K-5 with an emphasis on STEM subjects.
  • Kaleidoscope Schools — With a focus on on the arts, the Kaleidoscope School of Memphis would serve grades 6-8 and be located in close proximity to the South Main Arts District.
  • Glory Tabernacle Christian Church — “The” Academy All Girls Charter elementary school would be based in northeast or midtown Memphis with an emphasis on literacy.
  • Artesian Schools Inc. — Southwest Early College High School would operate in Frayser or Raleigh and seek to develop first-generation college-goers.
  • Gateway University High School — The proposed downtown high school would focus on computer science.

Chalkbeat reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Future of Schools

IPS students have made their high school choices. Here’s where they want to go.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

High schoolers across Indianapolis Public Schools have made their choices for next year, and some schools are proving far more popular than others.

With all but four high schools set to close, the district is already in the midst of an upheaval. Students’ choices this year could have far-reaching implications for the configuration of the district for years to come.

Shortridge High School had the greatest increase in demand, with more than triple the 400 students enrolled there now listing it as their first choice for next year. George Washington High School, which also enrolls more than 400 students now, is not likely to grow too much. And while Arsenal Technical and Crispus Attucks high schools are both likely to grow by hundreds of students, neither saw interest grow as exponentially as Shortridge.

The final enrollment at each school will determine such critical issues as how many teachers are hired, what courses are available to students, and how much it costs to operate the buildings. Ultimately, students’ choices are likely to shape course offerings over the next several years, district officials said.

The enrollment figures are the result of a district mandate requiring students from across the district to select high schools and magnet programs this fall. More than 90 percent of 8th to 11th grade students have made selections so far. All students will be placed in their top choice program, according to the IPS spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

Fewer than 500 IPS students have chosen programs at George Washington so far, according to district data obtained exclusively by Chalkbeat. In contrast, more than 1,300 students have selected Shortridge, which will house the arts magnet program currently at Broad Ripple and the International Baccalaureate Programme. More than 2,300 students have chosen programs at Arsenal Tech (currently the district’s largest high school with 1,826 students) and 1,050 have selected Crispus Attucks (which currently enrolls 695).

The uneven distribution of students did not take  Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration by complete surprise.

At an Indiana State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 4, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick asked, “What happens if you don’t have a nice, somewhat-even distribution? … What if it’s very out of whack?”

Ferebee said that the district will have room to accommodate students if a school proves especially popular. In the long term, he added, IPS may have to adjust, by replicating  popular programs and discontinuing unpopular ones.

But Ferebee also said the district was hoping to persuade students to take another look at some of the programs that might not be popular at first.

For instance, he said, “We do know it’s going to take some time to educate families on construction and engineering. So we knew out of the gate, not many students may be interested, so it will take some time to build a program.”

Here is a full breakdown of the schools and programs that students chose:

In total 5,142 IPS students chose their preferred programs as part of a broad reconfiguration plan that includes closing nearly half of the seven high school campuses because of low enrollment. The district has not provided projections of how many students would enroll in each high school. But if enrollment doesn’t shift in the coming months, some campuses will be far closer to capacity then others. While the initial deadline for choosing schools and programs has passed, enrollment remains open to any students who have not yet made their selection.

If no other students enrolled in IPS high schools, Shortridge would be nearly 89 percent full. Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks would each be over 76 percent full. And George Washington would be about 25 percent full.

At the four remaining high school campuses, the district is aiming to “reinvent” high school by vastly expanding specialized programs in subjects such as business, engineering, and the arts, which students will study alongside their core classwork.

Next year, every student will be enrolled in specialized programs within high schools. District leaders hope that students will choose schools based on their interests, rather than their neighborhood.

Principal Stan Law will take over George Washington next year. In an interview about the school last week, before IPS released student selections numbers, Law said that it was important for students and families to get accurate information so they would select schools based on student career interests rather than neighborhood.

“Everyone has their ideas about things, but only certain people have the accurate information,” he said.

The most popular programs are the health sciences academy at Crispus Attucks and the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Tech, where students can study subjects such as culinary arts, welding and fire rescue. Each attracted more than 900 students. The least popular are the teaching program at Crispus Attucks, chosen by  104 students, and the information technology program at George Washington, chosen by 80.

Despite its apparent unpopularity with IPS students, the information technology program fits in with a state push to prepare students for careers in computer science and related fields. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda calls for requiring high schools to offer computer sciences classes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce wants computer science to be a high school graduation requirement.

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who leads a district that is already in deficit, was optimistic. In a statement, he said, “we’re encouraged by the commitment and urgency demonstrated by our legislative leaders.”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”