Student Voices

Amid renewed focus on job training in high school, Memphis students consider their options

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Melrose High School students (from left) Deshon Davis, Aaliyah Scott, and Jonterio Collins at RedZone Ministries in Orange Mound.

For years, Memphis school leaders promoted the idea that college was the most logical next step for all of its students. Now they’re changing their tune.

Shelby County Schools’ new budget dedicates $6.7 million to overhaul its job certification classes, with a focus on training students for higher-paying, in-demand careers that don’t necessarily require a college education, such as information technology and carpentry. By contrast, that same budget earmarked $1.3 million for adding advanced college preparatory courses and readying students for college entrance exams.

That represents a big shift for a district that had once gone so far as to make t-shirts reading “Every Child. Every Day. College Bound.” It’s also part of a larger trend toward job training statewide and nationwide.

But it may take time to win students over.

Jonterio Collins, a rising junior at Melrose High School in Orange Mound, said he appreciates the option of vocational training, but that he and his peers think the district should provide more advanced courses to prepare them for college.

Collins said that Melrose has few Advanced Placement courses, which can count toward college credit, while “other schools have a lot.”

“Some students are really angry about that,” he said.

New focus career fields

  • Advance manufacturing
  • Architecture
  • Health science
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Marketing/distribution
  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • Transportation

District leaders have said that both vocational training and college preparation are essential since either path can lead to a career. Since job certification classes have not gotten the same attention in recent years, the revamp is an opportunity to play catch up, according to Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

“We’re going to have a career pathway for every child, no matter what that looks like,” Powers said.

The state Department of Education will begin to count the number of students who earn industry certifications, such as horticulture, machining, or plumbing as “ready graduates.” Local educators say vacancies in the local job market provided the impetus to offer more job certification classes. Nationally, a push for more vocational training is fueled by muddied statistics that the job market awaiting students is changing quickly and dramatically. And a recent Massachusetts study shows job training classes encourage more students to finish high school.

Melrose High School alumna and a current school volunteer, Claudette Boyd, recently took it upon herself to survey about 80 students at lunchtime in an effort to gauge their educational and career interests.

According to the surveys she distributed and provided to Chalkbeat, most respondents want to go to college, and about half of the students said Melrose had course offerings in a career path they wanted to pursue. Health science was the most popular job field and is one of the district’s focus areas, but certifications related to that field will not be offered at Melrose. Other popular careers included business management, criminal justice, and cosmetology or barbering.

Under the district’s plan, Melrose will offer certification programs in advanced manufacturing, architecture, barbering, cosmetology, web design, marketing, criminal justice, and tourism.

A recent district report showed that poorer students are less likely to have access to advanced courses that are meant to mirror college coursework. Those classes give students a chance to earn college credit and therefore save on college tuition.

The Orange Mound school has the highest poverty rate among high schools in the district at 88 percent and had only five courses that can count toward college credit. By contrast, White Station High School has the most in the district with 56 such courses.

Some students like rising junior Aaliyah Scott are simultaneously pursuing career training and a college education. Scott is entering her third year in the school’s popular cosmetology program, which will stay at Melrose under the district’s plan. She’s also hoping to go to college to become a traveling nurse. But she acknowledged that she knows little about preparing for college entrance exams or about the application process.

“It makes me nervous,” she said.

Deshon Davis said his exposure to advanced classes and job training courses were noticeably different between his first and last years in high school. He was enrolled in an advanced program he tested into at Central High School for ninth and 10th grades; then he transferred to Melrose, from which he graduated in May.

Most students he knew at Central High School, where about 46 percent of students live in poverty, took advanced courses. When he got to Melrose, he said his options were limited. For example, he wanted to take a computer science course, but it had been discontinued.

“At first it was a little bit confusing,” he said, referring to choosing classes at Melrose.

In April, Melrose students were given a catalog of job certification classes that will eventually be offered at the school, said Michael Schulte, who taught English there. At that time, teachers and students discussed various fields, and went over job descriptions and average pay. Students had about 15 minutes to ask questions, before ranking the classes they most wanted. The district consultant who helped design the new program also surveyed some students to get a better sense of their interests.

The upcoming school year will be a transition for the workforce training program, as the district provides teacher training in one of the seven identified fields.


Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.