changeup

Enrollment rises in Shelby County Schools for first time since suburban split

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michelle Edwards instructs fourth-graders at Bruce Elementary School, which has a hundred more students this year. The classroom was one of seven empty ones last year at the Memphis school, compared to just one this year.

Every year since the massive 2013 merger of schools in Memphis and Shelby County, enrollment for the consolidated district has dropped.

Most precipitous was the whopping 34,000 students who left the new Shelby County Schools in 2014 as six suburban towns formed their own school systems in a shakeup known as the “de-merger.”

Another 11,000 students were siphoned off gradually by Tennessee’s turnaround district, which has taken over low-performing Memphis schools annually since 2012.

But this school year, for the first time since the merger, the shrinkage stopped — and even reversed course a little.

Enrollment for district-run schools is 92,400, up by 2,000 students, according to preliminary numbers provided by Shelby County Schools. It’s a modest but serendipitous gain for a district that is Tennessee’s largest but was bracing for another small decline.

Add in charter schools, and the total enrollment is just under 107,000, a 2 percent increase from last year. (Charters make up a fourth of Shelby County Schools. They are public schools that are privately managed. All of the totals are based on the 20th day of the school year and are still being finalized.)

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson calls the increase a significant victory, especially considering that the district started the school year behind on enrollment. The higher student count already has translated into $7.6 million more in state funding than expected, he said.

“Just to be able to say we’ve stopped the bleeding this year and actually be on the trajectory to increasing attendance speaks to the work that’s going on in our schools,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

District leaders hope this year’s enrollment starts an upward trend after years of losing students.

The decline was not new. Under the former Memphis City Schools, fewer and fewer students were attending public schools in the years leading up to the merger.

Although it remains to be seen whether the uptick can be sustained, this year’s reversal was no accident. Shelby County Schools has worked feverishly to attract and retain students as the city’s educational landscape has splintered and the climate has grown friendlier to school choice.

The district invested $150,000 toward marketing and training principals to sell their schools through a campaign known as “Retain, Recruit & Reclaim.” The effort takes a page out of the charter school playbook on recruiting students to their classrooms.

"This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students."Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students,” Hopson said. “There’s a lot conversation in Memphis about choice. And we want to make sure our families and constituents know we have great choices also. That’s something to be proud of.”

Bruce Elementary saw the largest jump in enrollment among district-run schools. As a result, just one classroom sits empty at the midtown school, compared to seven last year.

About half of its hundred new students came from Carnes Elementary, which closed in May. The rest were drawn by extracurricular activities or experiences during this year’s summer learning academy, said principal Archie Moss.

“Constant recruitment is a part of the job,” Moss said. “You have to sell what’s so unique about your school.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The former Raleigh Egypt Middle School is back to housing middle schoolers under Shelby County Schools, not the state-run Achievement School District and its charter operator, Memphis Scholars.

Hopson’s administration also cites the Achievement School District’s enrollment decline as one reason behind the growth of Shelby County Schools. The state’s turnaround district paused on school takeovers last year and closed two of its charter schools, sending about 350 children elsewhere. And when its state-run charter in Raleigh moved across town, most of those students transferred to locally run Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, Hopson said.

An estimated 150 students came district-wide from the new summer learning academy, according to Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations.

“We strategically extended invitations to all students, even private school students, for them to see what Shelby County Schools has to offer,” Ray said.

Enrollment in Memphis’ charter schools increased from 13,900 to more than 14,400, or about 4 percent, based on preliminary numbers. That brings charter school enrollment to 13 percent of students in Shelby County Schools.

Hopson said the overall trend has potential to continue — if the district can also continue to improve its academics.

“We don’t just want to be trying to poach numbers and run the score up,” he said. “We want to make sure these kids are coming back to and they’re afforded high-quality options.”

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”