'Summer Slide'

Memphis leaders hope first-ever summer learning academies yield lessons about closing the achievement gap

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students demonstrate ancient Chinese martial arts during a showcase for parents at the end of Shelby County Schools' 2017 summer learning academy at Alcy Elementary School.

When 11-year-old Stefani Oliver starts back to school next month in Memphis, she’ll know a lot of new things — like some martial arts moves from ancient China and how to make glittery slime for a science project.

But the rising sixth-grader likely would have missed those experiences if she hadn’t attended Shelby County Schools’ first-ever summer learning academy, a free six-week program aimed at keeping the district’s youngest minds active and engaged.

“Having her here made me feel good as a parent,” said Talia Oliver, Stefani’s mom, about the academy hosted at Alcy Elementary School. “This program kept the learning going for them.”

Stefani was among about 6,300 students who participated in the K-5 academy at one of 26 schools across Memphis. While attendance went up and down, the reach exceeded well beyond the 5,500 students initially targeted when Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced the initiative in March.

The academy wrapped up last week with students taking assessments to gauge their summertime growth in math and reading. Those students will be tracked in the upcoming school year to see if the experience makes a difference academically.

Hopson, who has expressed openness to switching to year-round school, said the data will be useful to determine if a calendar change makes sense. “Clearly there’s a huge need here. The research shows the summer learning loss is real,” he said during a radio broadcast in May.

Teachers who led the academies said working with smaller groups of students helped create a learning environment that was positive, fun and productive.

“I think they’ll see a growth in test scores,” predicts Tresa Taylor, a fourth-grade teacher at Germanshire Elementary School.

Within Shelby County Schools, where 60 percent of children live in poverty, parents often don’t reinforce schooling during the summer — “not for lack of trying,” Taylor said, “but because parents don’t know what to do in the summer.”

The resulting summer learning loss contributes to a widening achievement gap with their more affluent peers, who have greater access to enriching summer activities that range from library time to traveling to interesting places.

The learning academies were designed to reinforce old lessons, as well as teach new ones — and without the pressure of teaching to state-mandated tests. The days included weekly field trips, time for reading, and healthy meals.

“It’s supposed to review and enrich our children to prepare for the next grade in addition to having fun,” said Latisha Brown, an assistant principal at Germanshire, who coordinated the academy at Alcy.

The initiative was funded mostly from federal grants designated to support students from low-income families; the rest came from Shelby County Schools.

Celebrating the end of the academy last week with her daughter, Oliver offered only one critique: she thinks the program should be expanded to more grades.

“Students are falling behind in middle school too,” she said, “and it would be great to prepare for high school.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.