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.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”