Optional Schools

‘Tent city’ is ending in Memphis. Will online admissions to prized schools be fairer?

PHOTO: Jim Lord
Parents line up outside Shelby County Schools central office in January 2016 to get applications for optional school admission.

Two years ago, Jim Lord camped outside in a tent for five days in January to secure a coveted spot for his son at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, one of the most popular public schools in Memphis.

It worked. Lord was the first person in line when Shelby County Schools opened its central office doors and began accepting applications for optional schools for the following year.

But the longstanding first-come, first-serve process gnawed at Lord and, even today, he knows that other deserving families were left out in the cold if they didn’t have the time and resources to do what he did.

“I hated it,” he said of the annual mass campout, which has come to be known as “tent city.”

Now the days of tent city are over, say district leaders.

In January, Shelby County Schools will move the entire application process online, and it’s exploring other changes too. Program director Linda Sklar says moving completely online offers a “unique opportunity to revisit our optional school application process for new students in a way that increases access and equity for all of our families.”

The district has 49 optional programs that provide specialty studies in areas such as science, computer technology, aviation and the performing arts. In recent years, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy and Idlewild Elementary have been the optional schools of choice for Memphis families seeking a high-achievement public education. Not all applicants get into those two. But at the other schools, parents usually get their first choice if their student meets academic requirements, according to Sklar.

The former Memphis City Schools began developing optional schools in the 1970s as magnet programs to compete with private schools for high-achieving students.

Over the years, it’s tweaked the application process. Last January, the district revised its first-come, first-serve approach so that only 80 percent of applicants were chosen that way, and the remaining 20 percent were drawn from a lottery. It’s also been allowing students who are currently enrolled in the district to apply online.

District leaders unveiled two other options on Tuesday night during the first of several meetings to seek public input. In addition to the 80-20 option, they are considering 1) placing all applicants into a lottery, or 2) shifting the online process so that it’s all first-come, first-serve.

If the latter, parents worry that the inequities of “tent city” will simply migrate online. Memphis has a high percentage of single-parent families living in poverty, and digital access is an issue.

Whatever happens, Memphians are in agreement that the system that inspired tents to pop up on the grounds of the district’s headquarters is unacceptable.

“Camping out is unfair on so many levels to people,” said Susan Todd, a parent who hopes her fifth-grader can attend Maxine Smith next year. “There’s no way it can be equal if you work at Kroger because you do not have the … availability.”

Tosha Downey, who graduated from Memphis City Schools, said standing in line for a better school was not an option when she was growing up in a poor family, especially if she couldn’t walk to school.

“The first who come are the wealthiest, the most privileged, the ones with flexible schedules who can come and take off work, who can have their friends and their cousins and their nannies show up … and poor families cannot do that, no matter how brilliant their children are. They just cannot do it,” said Downey, who now works as advocacy director of the Memphis Education Fund, which works in behalf of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Venita Doggett, a parent and former district employee, said her mother camped out years ago for an optional school slot. She’s ready for tent city to go.

“I don’t understand why we’re doing something so archaic. If you open up a window for applications on Monday at 8 o’clock, that only benefits people that work in an office. That does not benefit anyone else,” she said.

Most people who weighed in on Tuesday said the lottery appears to be the fairest option going forward. But others, like Lord, favored some kind of hybrid process.

“It’s a combination of ability and motivation,” he said. “Some people may be really motivated to get in line but can’t because they’re at work. Going online definitely takes a lot of those access issues away.”

Ultimately, Lord said, there’s a fourth option that would render the whole conversation moot.

“The real solution,” he said, “is to have more of those schools.”

A second public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18, and an online survey is also planned.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings tonight. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has is more than a lot of people would be comfortable with.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.

The big sort

Do selective admissions actually help middle schools choose the best students? This Manhattan dad says no.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 recently gathered to learn about the middle school admissions process. Eric Goldberg wants District 2 to end selective admissions methods that many middle schools use determine admissions.

Eric Goldberg wants to change the debate around whether public schools should be allowed to select their students based on test scores, report card grades, and other factors.

A parent leader on the Community Education Council in District 2, Goldberg is proposing a resolution to put a hold on that that practice, known as “screening,” across the district’s middle schools. District 2 stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Many question whether sorting students by academic ability is fair, and critics say it exacerbates segregation. Goldberg’s criticism is different: He questions whether the sorting mechanisms actually work to distinguish among students and pick those with the most academic potential. 

“From the basic design to the implementation, this process is riddled with issues,” he said. “It makes it essentially worthless.”

His resolution would be merely symbolic but would add to the growing criticism of the methods many New York City schools use to select students. Community leaders in one Brooklyn district have called for an end to selective admissions in their middle schools, and Chancellor Richard Carranza recently called screening “antithetical” to public education.

Like other critics of the screening process, Goldberg is worried about whether the current system is equitable. But he also thinks that starting with more basic questions is a better way to convince parents that something has to change.

“We’ve set up this tension between a system that values merit and a system that values diversity,” he said. “But we haven’t asked… is this system actually determining who has merit?”

Goldberg said he has some support from fellow council members, who are expected to vote on the resolution this fall after a series of community discussions. Ultimately, the council doesn’t have the power to change admissions in the district — that’s up to the Department of Education and local school leaders. But parent buy-in has proven integral to pushing integration efforts elsewhere, and a show of support for such a dramatic step could serve as an important signal to city officials.

When talking to Chalkbeat, Goldberg had this to say about the flaws he sees in the system, and what he thinks it will take to accomplish meaningful change.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are you proposing for District 2 middle schools?

We would like District 2 to place a moratorium on screening until we can have a full assessment of the process, because our belief is that it is unfair to keep it in place and subject another set of students to a deeply flawed process.

In your view, what are the flaws?

There’s no standardized grading system in place. One school could have a scale of 1 to 4 for grading, another school could have a scale of 1 to 100. There is no oversight in place to ensure that grade distribution within schools, within a classroom, is somewhat standardized — let alone across schools.

If you look at other aspects like testing, it’s clear and it’s known that many students are tutored for the [state] test. It’s clear that these tests were designed as diagnostic assessments rather than assessments to be used for selection. We’ve pushed back on whether these state tests should be used for teacher evaluations, but yet, for some reason, we sit on the sidelines and allow our students to be assessed by them.

If you go to attendance — which to me is probably the most pernicious of all — attendance for 10-year-olds is schools choosing families…For a 10-year-old to get to school on-time, they are fully dependant on their caregiver.

The last area is school-based assessments and interviews. Many of the schools administer their own math or English tests and assessments. But no one has reviewed those tests to make sure that they’re up to standards in terms of being reliable and valid indicators of student performance. Many of these schools also do interviews, but yet, the interviewers have had no training, and there’s no standards in place for how those interviews are run. They don’t have unconscious bias training. And there’s really no transparency around what questions are asked and whether or not they’re valid.

Why are you focusing on whether this process is reliable, rather than on whether it’s fair — as other critics are doing?

There will be a lot of discussion and tension around the rationale for screens and what purpose they serve, around the impact that screens have and whether that impact is fair and equitable. But I think, at the most basic level, we should have more agreement and unanimity to see the flaws in this process. My belief is that as people understand how deeply flawed this process is, that they will take a step back and assess screening as a whole.

So is this just the first step before diving into the bigger question of whether screening is fair?

Those are conversations that we certainly should be having as a school system and as a community. But I think it takes away some of the pressure and high-stakes nature of that conversation if we can get consensus that this system is flawed in terms of its design and implementation, and we should end a flawed system.

District 2 has been debating how to make its schools more diverse for some time now. What have you accomplished so far?  

The way District 2 has made progress is, first, around transparency. The fact that schools are actually sharing (admissions) rubrics today is a big change from where we were two or three years ago. But there’s still a huge gap because the schools still don’t share what score on a rubric actually led to an admission.

We’ve been able to engage schools and principals in a deeper conversation around middle school admissions, and some of the schools have taken what I think are big steps around applying for, and now implementing, diversity in admissions set-asides for low-income students at three of our most selective schools.

I also think we’ve made strides in having conversations with the community, but we haven’t been able to drive to more significant structural changes. One of the tensions that we see — and that probably a lot of districts see — is do we work toward incremental change, or do we work on holistic, system-wide changes?

Given that tension, what do you think needs to happen?

First and foremost, it’s really our middle school principals, and District 2 administration, and the DOE, who right now have the sole discretion, power, and authority to set the admissions standards for District 2.

Second is continuing to build support within the parent community in District 2 around changes to the middle school admissions process. One of the difficulties there is that constituency, which often are fourth-grade parents, is that once they’re through the process, if you ask them to reflect on the process, they would have significant issues with how it affected their kids. But once they pass through and move on to middle school, then it recedes into the background.

I think there’s also a message that’s being sent by the new chancellor that this is a deeply flawed system and many of the commonly held assumptions that we have in place, we need to question and challenge. Our principals and administrators need to bring that message forward to action.

Within the parent community, there will be debate, discussion, and contention. Our school leaders, people look to them for guidance, and they have the respect and reputation within the community to actually drive change. My hope is that Chancellor Carranza is giving all them more space to speak on and advocate for what they think is right.

What would a better middle school admissions system look like in District 2?

I think that this should be a collaborative development of a system that values our students and values the education environment that we want. I look to the community to come up with ideas.

I want to maintain student choice but I don’t believe there’s any value in assessment and selection of our students. So I don’t believe there should be any screens in place.

This system continues to work for select people and select subgroups, and those are the people who want us to perpetuate [it]. They are people of financial means, people with time resources, people with social capital. They are resourced in a way that works for them. But for 10- and 11-year-olds, we need a system that works for everyone.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Each of these 10-year-olds has incredible potential. This screening system asks us to make distinctions around potential with tools that tell us nothing. At best, they’re telling us about their past performance, their family support, and maybe what they’ve been exposed to outside of school.