School Closings

For south Memphis neighborhood, proposed school closings represent another blow

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
From left: Parents Charlotte Smith and Nadia Holmes stand in front of South Side Middle before the South Memphis school was shuttered in 2015. The decision by leaders of Shelby County Schools impacted 300 students.

Nadia Holmes attended Orleans Elementary, Longview Middle and South Side High schools in southwest Memphis, as did her mother, grandmother, four children and a slew of black professionals.

Today, Longview and Orleans are boarded up, its signs rusted, its windows shattered. Administrators closed Longview in 2007 and Orleans in 2012 in response to budget cuts and dwindling enrollments. Neighboring Lincoln Elementary School now serves the neighborhood’s youngest students, and South Side has been turned into a middle school, though both are barely half full.

Last month, administrators with Shelby County Schools announced a plan to shutter those two schools too. Only a quarter of its students are meeting basic state reading and math expectations. If the district doesn’t close them, the state likely will take over the schools, they say.

This week, the district will hold two community meetings on Monday and Thursday to discuss the potential impact. The meetings likely will be contentious.  Since the superintendent’s Jan. 21 announcement, teachers, parents and community activists have held a series of news conferences and rallies to fight the closings.

“South Side has history,” said Holmes, who lives across the street from the school. “This has always been our neighborhood school. There are way too many smart people who have come out of this school to close it. ”

The land where South Side sits has been home to a neighborhood school since the early 1920s. The former South Side High School had strong community support and maintains an active alumni group. Last summer, alumni sponsored a picnic that attracted more than 1,000 people, including several local dignitaries.

South Side supporters are frustrated by the gradual gutting of their beloved neighborhood, now dotted with hundreds of foreclosed homes. Some homes have been burned to the ground by arsonists and others have been ransacked by trespassers. Crime has steadily increased and, last August, a speeding driver hit a student in front of Lincoln and then fled. Some residents blamed district layoffs of crossing guards.

Now they say that closing more schools – which have served as neighborhood community centers and gathering spots – will only lead to more trouble. They refute the district’s test scores, pointing to a swelling honor roll and solid report card grades.

“This is the only decent school left over here,” said Holmes, whose daughter is an eighth-grader at South Side. “I refuse to be in a position where they take everything away from us like that.”

Members of the Shelby County School Board say they haven’t made up their minds about the proposed closings and pledge to hear parents’ and teachers’ concerns.

The district – under fire for having the state’s highest concentration of underperforming schools – has closed dozens of schools in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods in recent years after losing thousands of students to charter schools and new municipal school districts. Some of the families simply moved to neighborhoods with more opportunities.

District administrators say it’s too costly to operate aging, half-empty schools built for more than 2,000 students. Several of the schools can’t afford basic extracurricular activities such as sports programs, and classroom environments aren’t always attractive to the most qualified teachers. Test scores inevitably suffer.

South Side Middle School test scores

If they don’t close South Side and Lincoln, administrators say the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) likely will take over the schools to operate directly or hand over to a charter operator, a publicly funded but independently run school. As a result, the district would lose more students, as well as the state and federal money they bring.

ASD administrators twice have tried to take over South Side but changed their minds both times – once to give the school another chance to improve scores and later because a charter organization pulled out of the takeover process.

Along with closing Lincoln and South Side this fall, the district is pulling hundreds of students out of three other schools that the ASD plans to partially operate. Shelby County Schools also plans to realign enrollment at two other schools to serve only middle school students, rather than both middle and high school students.

Unlike with previous school closings, this plan calls for transferring the majority of students affected to a school in the district’s “Innovation Zone,” a cluster of schools that have flexibility from state law designed to help them make changes that rapidly improve test scores. Several of those efforts have proven successful.

“At some of these [district] schools, 80 percent of these kids can’t read,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the board. “That’s not cutting it. … The question is: Do you want your school to be operated by the Izone or the ASD? That’s the question we have to ask. If you look at the results of iZone, I think the results speak for itself.”

Last week in South Memphis, as they waited for school to dismiss, several parents expressed confusion and anger over the proposed changes. If their neighborhood school closes, they asked, how will they get to the new school? Will the closing happen before the end of the school year? (Administrators have said that, if the schools are close, students will be allowed to finish the year at their current school and that transportation will be provided this fall to their new schools at A.B. Hill Elementary and Riverview Middle schools.)

Other parents flatly disagree with the state’s assessment of their schools’ academic performance. They praise their children’s teachers, noting that the educators call home when test scores drop or students don’t show up to class.

Nicole White said she transferred her son to South Side last school year from their neighborhood school in Orange Mound because of the good things she learned about its special education program.

“Before my child came here, he couldn’t read a lick,” White said while picking up her seventh-grade son, Tabb. “Now, he reads and writes. There aren’t that many good schools around here. If they close this one, we’ll have nothing left.”

Others fear that transferring South Side students to Riverview, its crosstown rival, will result in skirmishes on the busses and in classrooms.

Several parents at Lincoln Elementary expressed frustration for having to transfer schools again – an arduous and emotionally draining process in which friends and beloved teachers are lost in the shuffle.

“They’re taking so much out of our community,” said Shawn Partee, whose daughter recently joined the school’s majorette squad. “Instead of funding prisons and jails, why don’t they try to fund these schools?”

In an editorial published last week, South Side physical education teacher Toni Jackson said the proposed closing is just another effort by the state to tear apart Memphis communities.

“If the state wants to take us back, let’s go all the way back – to sit-ins, boycotts, protests, marches,” she wrote. “And if need be, in order to save our schools and save our children from the political and corporate power structure, we might have to shut the whole system down to remove the stench. It takes a village with every villager involved.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.