school segregation

University of Memphis runs the most segregated elementary school in the city. Will its middle school be more diverse?

PHOTO: Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal
In this 2016 photo, students play tubanos during music class at the University of Memphis Campus School. The university wants to add a middle school.

The University of Memphis is proposing to operate a middle school along with its existing elementary school while boosting student diversity in its programs.

The university’s elementary, Campus School, has the highest percentage of white students in the city, at 66 percent in 2017, and the lowest percentage of students living in poverty, 8 percent the same year. By comparison, about 8 percent of students in Shelby County Schools are white, and 59 percent live in poverty.

That especially matters in Memphis, where schools are more segregated than they were in 1971, when a judge used the racial makeup of schools to order desegregation. A growing body of research shows that segregated schools especially disadvantage students of color.

Remy Debes, a member of the middle school’s steering committee and a philosophy professor, presented the university’s plans for a new middle school to Shelby County Schools board members on Tuesday.

“My wife is Indian and we have biracial children and we have lots of concerns about the diversity inside Campus School. It’s not that it’s horrendous, but it’s not representative of Memphis,” Debes said. “So, the goal here has been from the get-go: How do we create a school that looks more like Memphis?”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The University of Memphis campus.

But the university’s strategies to diversify its proposed middle school have not been tried at the elementary school, prompting questions from some school board members, who have the final say if the Shelby County Schools will contract with the university.

“I understand what your intent is behind the model, but it’s hard for me to understand that if that’s not currently reflected in how Campus School is,” said board chair Shante Avant. “It’d be interesting for me to learn from your committee what your plan is for that. Because if you don’t currently have a student body that is reflective of what you’re saying you want the school to be, how would you get there?”

“Campus Elementary was much more diverse when I was there in the 70s and 80s than it is now,” added school board member Michelle Robinson McKissack. “Be intentional. At that time, that first wave post-integration, they were intentionally trying to make sure they would do that.”

The university announced in March it would explore opening a middle school to build off the successes of Campus School, which often ranks among Memphis’ highest-performing on state tests. The school would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

So far, the university plans for a third of students to be children of faculty and staff, a third would come from the neighborhoods in a two-mile radius from the East Memphis school, and a third come be from the rest of the county.

The proposed middle school would give priority to students living in a two-mile radius of the campus and use the university’s existing bus service shown by the blue line. Source: University of Memphis

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in Shelby County Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff. But federal law prohibits explicit race quotas for student enrollment.


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


Still, other schools, like the recently opened charter school Crosstown High, have attracted applicants who vary in academic standing, race, and class through community outreach campaigns.

Although Campus School is also open to university service staff who don’t make as much money as faculty, Debes said there’s room to grow in advertising the opportunity to them.

“And that’s one of the things we will work to try to disseminate information about the school — not just to the community and the county but the university faculty and staff,” he said.

“I hope that you will be very targeted in making those families aware that this is out there as an option for them,” McKissack said.

To attend the proposed middle school, students would have to meet three requirements:

  • Satisfactory behavior
  • Fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals
  • On or above grade level scores on the state’s TNReady test or MAPS, a national test on student growth.

Some school board members took issue with some of the admission requirements, saying they are too narrow to attract the diverse student body they are seeking. Debes said that’s why the school would accept teacher recommendations to explain why a student doesn’t meet one of the requirements.

“We recognize that there are lots of brilliant children out there who are looking like they’re falling below grade level precisely because their learning styles are different,” he said. “We have to make sure the parents and families understand that just because you don’t meet those three criteria on official record, doesn’t mean there’s not a chance for your kid to get into that school.”

“I don’t know if a teacher is going to give a letter for a child who has (a poor grade) in conduct,” said board member Stephanie Love.

Debes said the university would look to Shelby County Schools for advice on reaching out to families in the area. But he also doesn’t want nearby schools — such as the sought-after Maxine Smith STEAM Academy — to think the university is poaching their smartest students.

Other details about the makeup of the school include a “project-based learning” curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math where students take fewer tests and do more group work based on solving real-world problems. Funding for the school would be based on Shelby County Schools’ “student-based budgeting” model that is based on student need rather than a fixed amount for every student.

A contract is expected to be discussed during the board’s Nov. 27 work session, with a vote scheduled for Dec. 4.

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.