In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”