hail mary

With the defeat of vouchers, Memphis Catholic leaders seek charter conversion

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Memphis Catholic High School

With no ability to get public funding through a school voucher program that Tennessee lawmakers have refused to create, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis is turning to another possible avenue: converting a network of schools to charters.

Diocese leaders announced plans this week to close its Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, as well as St. Michael Catholic School, at the end of the 2018-19 school year. The diocese only has enough funding to take the schools through next school year, according to an announcement posted online.

The announcement also said that talks are underway for an existing or new charter network to seek authorization from Shelby County Schools to open new schools in the same locations.

But whether that avenue is open depends on the local district. While diocese leaders said a charter network plans to file a letter of intent by Feb. 1, leaders with Shelby County Schools said Wednesday that the first time they heard from anyone representing Jubilee was soon after the diocese announcement.

Diocese spokesman Vince Higgins told Chalkbeat that board members for the Jubilee network have been leading discussions to gather community interest in creating a new charter network or having an existing one step in.

If that happens, the conversion would be a massive transition involving up to 10 schools that serve more than 1,500 students in pre-K through the 12th grade. Since the charter network would become a public school, the religious education would be eliminated, but many of the staff and students are not Catholic.

Jubilee schools were founded in 1999 to serve students from low-income families. Almost all of the students receive needs-based scholarships, leaving some families to pay as little as $40 per month.

Tapping a voucher program to give families public dollars to pay for private tuition represented a last resort to fill a funding gap left by a shrinking trust fund and declining enrollment. In 2014, the network stood to gain more than $2 million from vouchers if they filled their classroom space. The Jubilee network has about 500 empty seats this year, or one-fourth of its capacity.

But state lawmakers have been reticent to approve a voucher plan. This year, the bill’s main sponsors announced that their proposal was dead before the legislative session even began, sealing the fate of the private Catholic network.

“It’s one of those instances where we saw this was coming, but there was no savior. No one threw a life ring,” Higgins said.

Jubilee was virtually alone among Memphis private schools willing to accept vouchers and administer state tests if the legislature created a program. Many other schools were undecided, some citing the strings attached to receiving taxpayer funds.

Here’s a map of schools affected:

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.