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Parents at charter schools fair encouraged to use school data to inform decisions

Parents talk to Memphis Rise employees about the new charter schools
Parents talk to Memphis Rise employees about the new charter school
J. Zubrzycki

Parents knew some things they were looking for: Music and extracurriculars; a safe school; a school with strong academics. But at the Memphis Charter School Information and Enrollment Fair this past weekend, they were encouraged to ask one more question: What do the numbers say? How many of the school’s students are proficient in reading and math? What are they scoring on the ACT? What’s the school’s score on the state report card?

Representatives from charter schools, the Shelby County district, and the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) showed up this Saturday for the second annual charter school fair, which aimed to introduce parents to the increasing number of school options in Memphis and help them navigate their choices. There are 48 public charter schools in Memphis this year, and there are expected to be 56 in the 2014-15 school year.

“We want parents to be aware of their different choices,” said Greg Thompson, the chief executive officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Sherri Stepter, a parent of a sixth-grader and ninth-grader, said, “I came to get information about options for my son. I want a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, and a well-rounded education that incorporates the arts.”

Parent Sherri Stepter talks to representatives from a charter school
Parent Sherri Stepter talks to representatives from a charter school

Next school year, there will be 40 charter schools run by Shelby County Schools and 16 charter schools in the ASD, which also directly runs six schools. This year, some 10,500 Memphis students attend charter schools. The Tennessee Charter School Center’s Hunter Schimpff said that he projects an additional 2,000 students in Memphis will attend charter schools in 2014-15, as new schools open and others add grade levels or expand their enrollment. The 150,000-student Shelby County school district has more than 200 schools, but has seen enrollment in its regular schools decline in recent years partly due to the influx of new school operators.

Charter schools in Tennessee are publicly funded and run by independent not-for-profit organizations, which are granted more autonomy over their school-level budgets, policies, personnel and curricula but are held to the same accountability standards as other public schools.With the exception of those zoned to schools within the state-run ASD, parents must choose to send their child to a charter school.

Despite a delayed start due to icy weather, more than 550 parents and children attended the fair Saturday, which was organized by the Tennessee Charter School Center. That’s more than attended last year’s event, organizers said.

A worksheet for parents at this weekend’s fair encouraged parents to examine data from charter schools and regular public schools.
A worksheet for parents at this weekend’s fair encouraged parents to examine data from charter schools and regular public schools.

Parents and students toured tables with colorful banners and school gear set up in a ballroom at the University of Memphis, talking to school officials and taking notes. Some even applied for schools on the spot. Cheerleaders from STAR Academy and a karate team from Grizzlies Prep performed on a stage.

Materials at the event encouraged parents to use school data to inform their decision. Parents and students were given an informational sheet to compare growth and achievement, as measured by the state’s report card, at their zoned school and at the featured schools at the fair. The sheet had space for parents to write what percent of students were proficient in various academic subjects, and how the school scored on state standardized tests and measures of growth.

At the entrance, Stand For Children was running a “data table,” where volunteers helped parents get numbers from the state’s report card to help them compare charter schools and district schools.

At their table, Shelby County Schools officials informed parents about their choice transfer, optional school programs, and other programs run by the district. Nearby, officials for the state-run ASD passed out a brochure explaining their mission. Students zoned to priority schools – those ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state – are currently eligible to attend ASD schools.

Not all schools had years of data with which to convince parents: Jack Vuylsteke, the founder of Memphis Rise Academy, was at the fair recruiting students for a school that won’t open until August. Vuylsteke said Memphis Rise Academy has been canvassing door-to-door and meeting with community organizations and local elementary schools. A number of parents had taken materials and signed up for a mailing list on Saturday’s event. Vuylsteke said the school plans to enroll 108 sixth-graders next year, and that between 15 and 20 students had already applied for the school.

Robbin Sanders, a parent liaison for Memphis Business Academy, which was founded in 2005, said the fair was also a good recruitment tool for more established schools. “We graduate 70 students a year, so we always need to find more students,” she said. Sanders’ daughter was part of the Memphis Business Academy‘s first graduating class.

Andre Tyler, who attended the fair with his four-year-old son, also named Andre, said he was eyeing the Soulsville Charter School, which has sixth-eighth graders, for his daughter, who will soon graduate from STAR Academy, an elementary school. “She’s really into dance and music,” he said. He said the fair had been helpful, and that he was glad to have the charter school options. “I wanted to find a better school.”

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