School closing

Rodent infestation forces Memphis school building to close for the semester

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools employees tour Kirby High School during repairs. District officials announced Thursday that the school would remain closed due to a pest infestation.

Dozens of rats at Kirby High School in Memphis will keep the building closed the rest of the semester, district officials announced at a faculty meeting Thursday.

A rat’s nest found near the school has kept students out of school for five days so far and a full remedy would take about six to eight weeks. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district is looking at several places to relocate Kirby’s 800 students including an old K-Mart and Hickory Ridge Mall, about two miles away, to keep students together. Wherever they end up, transportation will be provided.

Hopson said officials decided to close the building for the whole semester rather than move students back in November or immediately after the work is completed.

The rat’s nest was discovered Aug. 24 as school staff cleaned up an old, large storage bin that had mulch between the school’s greenhouse and the building, Hopson said. That disturbance to the nest caused the rodents to “run inside the school.”

“This is not a scenario where people were not doing their job… This could have happened anywhere,” he said, adding about 80 rats have been killed so far. “This is truly an avoidable act of nature.”

The cleanup has cost the district about $70,000 so far and Hopson expects to spend “tens of thousands of dollars” more to close crevices that rats can squeeze through down to “the size of a quarter.”

The county health department had cleared the school previously in August and approved it to Tuesday, Hopson said, but a resurgence caused classes to be canceled again Thursday and Friday.

Aletha Brown, a parent at Kirby High, said the rat problem is not characteristic of the school’s cleanliness.

“I never saw any cleanliness issues. I believe this is an isolated incident,” she told Chalkbeat. “I’ve visited classrooms before and never observed things that could cause concern.”

Kay Johnson, whose daughter is a senior at Kirby, said she has gotten assignments from her teachers online.

“It’s not like it’s been idle time,” she said before a community meeting held at Hickory Ridge Middle School that drew 200 people. She didn’t have much preference on where students end up “as long as it’s instructional, I’m fine with that.”

Kirby High School is one of 166 schools across the state that scored the lowest on state tests so missing instructional time is especially detrimental, Hopson said. Principal Steevon Hunter and teachers are working on a plan to hit the ground running wherever they end up. Hopson also said he plans to make the state aware of the situation and the district’s plan to make up the time.

Helen Collins, a parent at Kirby High, said whatever the solution is, students should stay together.

“I think the focus should be finding a resolution to keeping our kids together under one roof,” she commented on board member Kevin Woods’ call on social media for suggestions. “To relocate them now especially during a time their programs are improving would kill the spirit of many.”

Danielle Thigpen said her daughter’s cheerleading team is still practicing and the school plans to have a pep rally to keep morale high.

The ordeal has been “traumatic” to teachers, said Tikeila Rucker, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County.

“I personally would not have been back after the first day I saw anything,” she told Chalkbeat.

Hopson had initially considered relocating students to South Side High School. The building previously was occupied by GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District that closed in May. But the school is 15 miles away and could prevent parents without cars from getting to Kirby if needed.

Hopson said he plans to present a full list of recommendations to board members Tuesday during a scheduled work session.

word choice

A quietly edited report and dueling blog posts reveal a divide over the ‘portfolio model’

Diane Ravitch speaks at California State University Northridge. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

A report on school choice released last month offered this in a list of strategies for improving schools: “creating a portfolio approach that treats all types of schools equally.”

Today, that reference is gone from the report — a small edit that reveals notable disagreements among prominent names in education who often agree.

The report was issued by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank started by Linda Darling-Hammond, an influential Stanford professor. Then came a critique from Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, a pro-public education group that opposes charter schools. And then came the edits to the original report, first noted by Burris and Ravitch.

At the center of the disagreement is the report’s use of the word “portfolio.” The portfolio model is a strategy offering parents the choice of different school types (typically including charter schools) and having a central body holding all schools accountable for results and manages certain functions like enrollment. And the Learning Policy Institute praises Denver, a district that has adopted it.

Denver’s collaboration agreement with its charter schools “drives equitable funding and access for all schools, and strives to replicate the most effective schools of all kinds,” the report says. The report also recommends putting the “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures,” and notes that most school choice in the U.S. involves options within traditional districts.

Ravitch and Burris pushed back on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. “School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students,” they wrote, pointing to instances where charter schools have pushed out students with disabilities or shut down abruptly.

That criticism seems to have gotten through. Since the debate began, the Learning Policy Institute has edited its report to remove the term “portfolio” and changed other language. One recommendation — “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” — became “focus on high-quality learning for children, not the preferences of adults.”

“The language change was made after some public feedback suggested that the use of the word ‘portfolio’ in the report was being misinterpreted,” Barbara McKenna, a spokesperson for the Learning Policy Institute, said in an email. “The report used the word ‘portfolio’ in one of the recommendations in the most straightforward sense of the term — an array of options.”

The report does not indicate that it has been updated since it was published late last month. McKenna said that’s because the revisions weren’t substantial.

Meanwhile, Darling-Hammond and co-authors have responded, and Ravitch and Burris offered an additional rejoinder.

Darling-Hammond said in an interview that she neither rejects nor wholly subscribes to the portfolio model. “Unplanned, uncoordinated, unmanaged choice has a lot of challenges and problems,” she said.

This debate comes as a new group, known as the City Fund, has raised at least $200 million in order to spread the portfolio model to dozens of U.S. cities. Whether the approach reliably improves academic outcomes remains up for debate.

public comment

What to expect from six hours of charter school hearings Wednesday night

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

The public can weigh in on three new charters, 11 renewals and one potential revocation on Wednesday night during a marathon session of hearings at Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 42 W. Madison Street.

One school, the Near West Side campus of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men High School, could lose its charter and be forced to close. Parents and families will have a chance to weigh in during a public comment section.

Urban Prep operates three campuses in Bronzeville, Englewood, and University Village. Only the latter, which reported 176 students this fall, is on the list to potentially shutter.

The first hearing, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., will be about new charters with proposals to open in the fall of 2019:

  • Intrinsic Charter School for a traditional citywide high school;
  • Project Simeon 2000 for a school that would serve at-risk students in middle grades in Englewood, where the district is planning a new $85 million high school to open in 2022;
  • Chicago Education Partnership to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the district will hear public comment on renewal applications from 11 private operators as well as the proposal to revoke Urban Prep’s University Village campus. The charter and contracts under consideration for renewal are:

  • Noble Network of Charter Schools (whose founder Michael Milkie just resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with alumni)
  • Namaste Charter School
  • Kwame Nkrumah Academy Charter School
  • Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago Charter School (Chicago Lawn Charter School)
  • Great Lakes Academy Charter School
  • Foundations College Preparatory Charter School
  • Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) Charter School
  • Hope Institute Learning Academy
  • Excel Academy of Southshore
  • Excel Academy Southwest
  • Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

Those interested in submitting comment may register in person before the meetings, send a fax to 773-553-1559, or email iandipublichearings@cps.edu.