Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.


In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat
A culinary course at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Albany Park

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

It’s a Thursday morning at Roosevelt High School, and Gillian McLennan’s first-period class takes place where her students have wanted to be all week — in the kitchen.

Today, McLennan jokes, “is a bit of a gory day.”

Quartets of students wearing bonnets, aprons, and gloves stand around metal prep tables, threatening a whole chicken spread on a cutting board.

One 16-year-old junior works his boning knife carefully, making precise incisions between joints and flesh. “We are removing the entire leg,” he explains.

The student — his first name is Lan, and school officials asked that students’ full names not be published — lives in Albany Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side. He considered applying to North Side schools with better reputations and higher test scores, such as Lane Tech or Lake View.

But Lan ultimately landed at Roosevelt because he thought its popular culinary certification program offered more options. He could be a chef, go to college, or both.

Lan highly recommends Roosevelt for that reason — despite the bad things he’s heard people say about his school.

“I don’t think they know Roosevelt,” he said.

By one important measure, Roosevelt, where nearly 93 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, looks like a school that might not offer the richest educational opportunities. Less than 10 percent of students there take Advanced Placement classes, the college-level courses that often mark the transcripts of students at schools with more affluence.

At the same time, far more students take AP courses at two other schools in Albany Park, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Those differences in educational opportunity are put in stark relief through a new interactive database from the news organization ProPublica built using federal education statistics.

Even as Chicago Public Schools has made some historic academic gains, the data show vast disparities in the kind of coursework available to students.

But as Lan’s experience illustrates — it’s vocational education that drew him to the neighborhood school — opportunity doesn’t hinge on just one class, on one measure.

This underscores a critical question confronting principals and top Chicago school administrators alike: What does opportunity look like? And what’s the right balance between classes that boost their schools’ reputations and those that serve their students’ varied needs?

A fresh look at data

In a starkly segregated city like Chicago, Albany Park appears more diverse. Nearly all-white as recently as the 1970s, the neighborhood has become a major port of entry for new immigrants and is now nearly half Latino, with residents who are Korean, Indian, Lebanese, African, German, and Eastern European too.

But even here, three high schools in the area that sit within 10 blocks of one another and share an El stop couldn’t be more different. 

About half of the 1,100 students at Northside College Preparatory High School, a test-in school that is one of the top in the state, are white or Asian. Nearly 60 percent of Northside students take Advanced Placement classes, compared with the district average of 22 percent.

Blocks away sits the 1,800-student Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, a magnet high school with a citywide lottery to enter and a separate selective “scholars” program for those with a minimum 3.0 GPA. There, 37 percent of students take AP classes.

Chicago rates both Northside and Von Steuben Level 1-plus schools, its top rating. At both schools, few students are English language learners.

At neighboring Roosevelt High, there are no admissions requirements. Nearly 69 percent of students are Latino, and 28 percent are English language learners. Only 8 percent of the students take AP classes, and there’s no AP math courses or calculus offered.

Such contrasts extend systemwide. Even though the Chicago district is just 14 percent white and Asian, those students have disproportionate access to elite high schools, AP classes, International Baccalaureate programs, and even arts and music education in some neighborhoods.

What to do about those inequities at the school level is far from clear. At Roosevelt, Principal Dan Kramer is working to revitalize the neighborhood high school by improving safety and boosting achievement. He and his predecessors have made progress: Roosevelt is graduating more students than in recent years, up from 56 percent in 2011 to 66.5 percent this year. He is also growing a program that lets students take courses for college credit.

Roosevelt’s enrollment has dropped by more than 400 students since 2014. Two-thirds of its current students take vocational classes, formally dubbed career technical education.

Lan and some of his classmates say they want more courses on aviation mechanics, engineering, digital media, and nursing — classes that will secure them certifications, apprenticeships, and jobs.   

Now Kramer, like principals at other underenrolled neighborhood schools, faces a tough decision. To attract and prepare more college-bound students, should the school invest in more AP classes? Or should it provide more career prep — like its popular culinary program that graduates students with kitchen experience and certifications that provide an entre to the food and hospitality industry?

“Pushing students into the AP classes for the sake of saying, ‘look how many kids I’ve got in AP classes’ — I think is really unfair to those students,” Kramer said, “for the sake of trying to make the school look good.”

One way Kramer hopes to attract more students is a pilot “scholars” program that steers high achievers to honors and AP classes. The program is in its first year.

No guarantee of equity

Nearby Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, which is considered a high-quality alternative to selective-enrollment high schools like Northside, has come up with its own way to attract students: an honors-level “scholars” program that requires a 3.0 GPA and an application with an essay. It split the school’s population into “scholars” and what students call the “regulars.”

In practice, the tiers mean that access to advanced coursework varies by race.

“It creates a sense that, if you’re a scholar, you deserve more, you’re smarter, you have all of these opportunities available to you, and if you’re a magnet school student, you’re just regular,” said Ashayla Freeman, 18, a senior who lives in Austin on the city’s West Side.

And, she said, while the student body is diverse, “I feel like in the scholars program you see that diversity less and less.”

At Von, 43 percent of the students who take AP courses are white or Asian — groups that together make up on 31 percent of the school. Overall, the school is 56 percent Latino and 11 percent black, but those groups make up just 46 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of AP enrollment.

Friends Jade Trejo Tello, 16, and Itzel Espino, 15, who are both Latino and live in Albany Park or neighborhoods nearby, have had divergent experiences at the school. Both applied for the honors track. Tello, who passed, takes all honors or AP classes and loves geometry and algebra.

Espino, meanwhile, didn’t get into the selective program. She’s still happy with her high school experience — she’s focused on keeping her grades up, so she can become a teacher — but feels that the selection criteria for the scholars program wasn’t entirely fair.

“I didn’t get the chance to be able to show myself, and I know some kids do have troubles that affect their school life and their grades,” she said. “We are not given a second chance to show ‘Oh, I can handle an honors class.’”

Messages seeking comment from Von Steuben leadership were not returned.

Declining enrollment

To have the budget to offer more courses for students like Espino, schools need to attract more students. But to attract more students, schools need a robust menu of courses. It can become a chicken-and-egg proposition.

To boost Roosevelt’s declining enrollment, Kramer has made the choice to market its vocational curriculum. “We’re meeting a demand,” Kramer said, emphasizing that many students have family members who work in child care, preschools, restaurants and health care — classic vocational education tracks.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat
Roosevelt High School in Albany Park

“Families see there’s a lot of career opportunity without much investment in postsecondary education,” he said. “In working-class neighborhoods in Chicago there’s an appreciation that these are growth industry areas.”

But if a school like Roosevelt offers culinary courses but no AP math classes, that could limit students’ choices in other ways. Advanced courses can signal students’ readiness for college work, and passing scores can earn students college credits, though research isn’t conclusive on the benefits if students don’t pass the tests.

P. Zitlali Morales, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that vocational courses should be available throughout the city— but it’s important to not allow that path to become an either/or choice for students.

“Right now, certain vocational opportunities are offered at certain schools for certain kids, and right now those are the kids who are English learners and also the children of immigrants,” she said.

For the first time, Chicago has hired someone whose job it is to wrestle with that and other tough questions of race and opportunity. Schools chief Janice Jackson has tasked new Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney with tackling the imbalance of opportunity districtwide for black and Latino students.

Jackson also has offered neighborhood high schools the chance to apply to offer specialized programs, including vocational offerings, arts programs, dual language certifications, or designations such as International Baccalaureate, magnet or gifted programs.

The competitive application lures principals with a pledge: Selected schools will also win money to cover the expenses of new teachers or certifications. It’s meant to help principals like Kramer to avoid having to make such stark choices about programming.

Kramer says he’s planning to propose applying for a dual-language academy. Students would have the opportunity to earn a prestigious seal of biliteracy, which will allow them to waive two years of a foreign language requirement at any Illinois public university.

Letters of intent are due Oct. 26. Kramer sounds almost giddy at the prospect.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.



‘Some kids are getting in, when others get left out’: Examining racial gaps in Indiana gifted programs

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Third-grade students work in a small group with a student teacher to practice multiplication at Indianapolis Public Schools' Lew Wallace School 107 on Oct. 3, 2018.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

When Christopher Sanders was in kindergarten, his teacher told his parents that the bright, kind boy should take the test to get into a gifted program.

Particularly adept at math, Christopher breezed through school easily and seemed to need extra challenges. But when he took the test, Christopher didn’t score high enough to be considered for a high ability program at his school in Warren Township, an Indianapolis district where white students are nearly 2.5 times as likely as black students to get into such tracks, according to state data.

“A lot of times black boys aren’t given the opportunity to show they can excel — but given the opportunity, they can,” said Christopher’s mother, Ericka Sanders, who appealed the results and got her son a seat.

She’s right to be worried that he faces obstacles other children might not. Across the nation, in Indiana, and in most Indianapolis districts, black students are far less likely than their white peers to be in gifted and talented programs or take advanced high school classes.

In Indiana elementary and middle schools, white students are three times as likely as black students to be enrolled in gifted programs, state data from 2016-17 show. In high school, white students are twice as likely as black students to be enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, according to federal education data, newly compiled by the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica in an interactive database.

The gap widens in Indianapolis, whose school districts serve mostly students of color. In Indianapolis Public Schools, where most children come from families in poverty and schools have long struggled academically, white students are 3.5 times as likely as black students to be in high ability programs and take advanced high school coursework, the data show.

The worst gap persists in the city’s wealthiest district, Washington Township, where white students are eight times as likely as black students to be in high ability programs, according to the data, and four times as likely to be in Advanced Placement classes.

In some Indianapolis districts, the gap has prompted ongoing changes to how children are chosen for gifted programs. With policies such as universal screening, and a greater focus on training teachers, the diversity of Indianapolis Public Schools’ gifted programs is inching toward looking more like the district’s demographics.

The effects of limited access to accelerated work can compound over the course of a student’s school career. Students who aren’t exposed to advanced work early on can be steered away from or poorly prepared for Advanced Placement courses in high school, even if they can choose to opt in then.

“We need to stop thinking about victory as getting them to grade level,” said Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies gifted education.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly why the gaps are so wide, but research into the question has offered some possible explanations. In some cases, educators’ biases could be keeping them from recognizing the potential of black children or poor children — which is exacerbated by the lack of black teachers, who are more likely than white teachers to see black students as gifted, according to one study. Screening systems might not be evaluating students in an equitable way, especially if children are chosen for assessment.

“When they’re performing at the same level, some kids are getting in, when others get left out or overlooked,” said M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children. “There are systemic barriers to allowing these students in.”

But local officials and experts agree that some schools are making headway in addressing these inequities, in part because of a growing awareness of the problem. In Washington Township, where the city’s greatest disparities exist, schools spokeswoman Ellen Rogers said in recent years the district has been training teachers to be more culturally responsive, build relationships with students, and focus on individual student performance. “We recognize the challenge nationally of improving the AP participation of our students of color,” she wrote in an email.

Indianapolis Public Schools has made incremental progress in increasing the proportion of black and Hispanic students in high ability programs, according to Candace Huehls, the district’s high ability coordinator. Additionally, Huehls said the district’s data differs from the state’s data, showing smaller racial disparities among advanced students.

The district uses several strategies that are considered best practices for identifying students for high ability programs. All students are screened in first and fifth grades, Huehls said. Top scorers and students nominated by parents, teachers, and administrators are given tests to measure their ability and achievement. Those tests results determine who qualifies for high ability programs.

Indianapolis Public Schools considers students for high ability programs based on where they fall compared to their peers within the district, rather than stacking them up against state or national standards. The district has also been training teachers on strategies to identify students who are advanced in math, English, or both subjects.

Identifying high ability students is critical at a young age, she said, because if they’re not challenged in school, they’re at risk for disengaging and checking out. Plus, high ability programs put students on track to continue with advanced classes throughout their education, including Advanced Placement classes in high school.

“It’s an area that we’re definitely still working on,” Huehls said, “but I think we’ve made some big improvements in educating teachers that all students have potential.”

Every school in Indianapolis Public Schools has some kind of high ability program — which experts say helps equalize opportunities.

“I think that’s important, because it sends the message to everyone in that school that we have talented kids here,” said Plucker, the Johns Hopkins professor. “I personally don’t hear that in a lot of urban schools. I hear the opposite.”

The programs may be in for further tweaks. Indianapolis Public Schools is evaluating its high ability programs this year, Huehls said, with the expectation of making “significant changes” next year.

She declined to elaborate on what the changes could entail, but she said the evaluation includes looking closely at the role of Sidener Academy, a district school specifically for gifted students. The school’s population is whiter and more affluent than the district’s overall demographics, in part because the school’s northside location is too far away from students in other parts of the district, Huehls said. It ends up filling unclaimed seats with students from nearby, and less diverse, suburbs.

Huehls, though, acknowledges that poverty makes it difficult to fully eliminate the racial disparities among the district’s high ability students. Students who move often can miss chances for screening, and students from low-income families often have less access to early childhood, after-school, or enrichment programs that can make giftedness more apparent to educators.

“Until we cure poverty and we get rid of discrimination, excellence gaps are not going to disappear completely,” Plucker said. “But lord knows they can be a lot smaller than they are right now. They’re just massive.”

One district school, Lew Wallace School 107, is on the front lines. Having seen a rise in students from around the world, school leaders worked to recognize high ability in students of color, non-native English speakers, students in poverty, and students coming from diverse educational backgrounds.

The elementary school uses a daily 30-minute literacy block and small-group instruction — made possible by a wealth of student-teachers and a training program where multi-classroom leaders support teachers — as “elevators” for high-ability students to pursue more challenging work while teachers to work with students who haven’t yet mastered grade-level skills.

“We have that mindset as a school: We’ll meet you where you are,” said Principal Jeremy Baugh.

On a recent day, a third-grade math class on multiplication broke into four groups. One, with the most advanced students sitting on the carpet with a student-teacher, practiced flashcards. At a table, the teacher watched lower-level students calculate answers on white boards. On the other end of the classroom, a visiting college student drew arrays with students. In a corner, an independent group moved clothespins on a chart.

The school also encourages enrichment opportunities that are usually more accessible to more affluent students, such as math club or robotics club.

Districts say the screenings for high ability students and training for teachers to serve high-ability students can be costly, but well worth the expense.

The state provides a little extra funding for high ability programs — a total of $13.5 million available statewide, with $500,000 dedicated to identifying students. The state also spends about $5 million each year to pay for students to take Advanced Placement exams and provide training for teachers.

Beyond access to advanced coursework, students also need the support to excel. In addition to gaps in access, Indianapolis schools also see disparities in who succeeds in Advanced Placement classes in high school. White students are more likely to take an AP exam than their black or Hispanic classmates — and they’re also much more likely to earn passing scores, according to state data.

These statistics and these challenges are precisely why Ericka Sanders fought so hard to have her son Christopher considered for his school’s gifted program.

“If we didn’t fight for that — if we had accepted the answer — we would’ve been doing him a disservice,” Sanders said.

Christopher thrived with the challenges of the high ability program at Warren Township, she said, and remained in high ability classes when the family moved to Lawrence Township.

Still, at the beginning of this year, as Christopher was starting fourth grade, his parents met with his teacher. They wanted her to know from the outset that they had high expectations for their son, and that they wanted him to succeed. They wanted her to know that they would be involved — and that they would support their son, and support her.

“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t underestimated,” Sanders said. “We prepare him at home: He’s prepared to go to school and learn and be respectful and listen and be a leader, and we want to make sure that same respect is in return.”