Chicago: As school closings vote nears, questions remain on money, academics, safety

By: Sarah Karp / May 20, 2013

A rally in Daley Plaza protests against school closings. Picture by Lucio Villa.

When Margarita Miranda moved to Old Town in 2000, the area looked much different. The Cabrini Green public housing projects cast a long shadow, and neighborhood elementary schools were located on every few blocks.

Today, the high-rise public housing has been wiped away, leaving the area with a smattering of row houses, townhouses and some stretches of still-empty lots.

Over the past decade, three of the schools that served the area’s children have been closed and reopened—one as a charter school, one as a selective enrollment school and the third as a lease by a private Catholic school that costs about $8,000 a year.

Miranda and other parents are now fighting furiously to save one of two neighborhood schools left. A parent volunteer who calls all the students at Manierre Elementary “her children,” she is emphatic that she won’t give up. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the closings on Wednesday.

“My son is upset,” she says. Miranda’s son has a disability that includes learning and speech difficulties and she’s afraid that he will simply “shut down” if he has to transfer to a new school.

But there’s something more that is eating at her. Even though Manierre is surrounded by high-performing schools, the school that her children are now supposed to attend is a Level 3 school with almost identical test scores.

Like Manierre, the receiving school, Jenner, has mostly black, low-income students. The other area schools are more diverse with far fewer poor children.

“I don’t want my children to go from a Level 3 school to a Level 3 school,” Miranda says. “I don’t want that for my children. They are good kids. They don’t bother nobody. They respect their elders.”

In some ways, Manierre is unique compared to the vast majority of schools slated to close on the South Side and West Side. Manierre is on the Near North Side, nestled next to some of the wealthiest areas in the city.

But in other ways, it is not different. Two months ago, CPS leaders announced their intention to close 54 schools, co-locate 11 and hand over six to the Academy of Urban School Leadership to be turned around. The end result of the school actions is that traditional, district-run neighborhood schools will become scarcer. Schools to which students have to apply and those run by private organizations will continue to take over, casting an ever-bigger shadow over the district.

The mayor and CPS officials have cast the move much differently, repeatedly saying that closings and consolidations will allow the district to redirect resources to fewer schools. And with the district facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, officials say closings will save $43 million a year in operating costs (starting in two years) and another $437 million in capital costs over the next decade.

“What we must do is to ensure that the resources some kids get, all kids get,” said Byrd-Bennett in a videotaped message on the CPS website. “With our consolidations, children are guaranteed to get what they need.”

Yet many of the district’s claims have drawn intense scrutiny and raised questions that undercut the rationale for closings as either a cost-savings or school improvement strategy.

Going to “better” schools

The first claim to face scrutiny is that students at closing schools will end up in higher- performing ones. According to state law, Byrd-Bennett has the authority to define “higher-performing,” and she determined that even when a school has the same performance rating, it can be considered higher- performing if it does better on a majority of the metrics, such as attendance and test scores.

Yet researchers note an important point: A move to a school that is only slightly better, at most, likely won’t mean much to students. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that, in previous rounds of closings, displaced students only reaped an academic benefit if they were sent to markedly better schools, defined as those in the top quartile.

In this case, just six receiving schools out of 55 are in the top quartile of all CPS schools. And in only three cases—3 out of 53 closings—are kids being sent from a school in the lowest quartile to a school in the highest, according to an analysis by WBEZ. Two-thirds of the closing schools are among the lowest rated in CPS, but in 18 cases students will be sent to schools that are equally low-rated.

Even among the 12 receiving schools that have the highest CPS rating, there is a broad range in terms of performance. Chopin, on the Near North Side, has nearly 96 percent of students meeting standards on the ISAT and nearly 70 percent exceeding standards, while Faraday, on the West Side, has 73 percent meeting standards and about 13 percent exceeding them. Research has shown that students need to exceed standards to perform well in high school.

Furthermore, no one knows exactly how many students will end up at the designated “receiving school”—the one that by some measure is higher performing. Last year, less than half of students went to the designated receiving school with many parents choosing closer or more convenient schools that performed no better than the school they left, shows a Catalyst analysis.

CPS officials counter that the money invested into the receiving schools will improve technology and other resources. The schools will be air-conditioned, with iPads, playgrounds and libraries. The district is also designating 19 schools as specialty schools, with International Baccalaureate, STEM and fine arts programs. This year, the new specialty schools will receive $250,000 to $360,000 in extra money to pay for positions and training.

While leaders may have meant for this to sweeten the deal, parents and activists have been incredulous that their schools must close in order to get resources that are common place in other schools.

Parents also aren’t convinced that the new turnaround schools will be better for their children. CPS plans to hand over six schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership for turnaround, which entails firing all or most of the staff, including the principal and the lunch ladies. For each turnaround, AUSL gets $300,000 in upfront costs, plus $420 per student for each student for at least five years.

Contracts with AUSL are for five years, but for several turnarounds they have been extended.

In her letter to parents, Byrd-Bennett said that turnaround schools have improved twice as fast as the CPS district-average.

“We want to provide your child with access to the same opportunities to boost their chance of academic success, which they will receive next school year if this proposal is approved,” she wrote.

Yet parents point out that many of the schools run by AUSL are not high-performers. Only one turnaround school, Morton, is a Level 1 school. And one of the closing schools, Bethune, is a turnaround.

Mathew Johnson, a parent at Dewey Elementary, says 98 percent of parents signed a petition saying they did not want their school given to AUSL. He says the school’s new administration seems to be on the right track and is doing a turnaround of its own.

“We are not afraid to hold the administration accountable,” says Johnson, who serves on the local school council.

Costs and savings

Because so many of the so-called “welcoming,” turnaround and co-locating schools lack resources, CPS officials will spend big money to get them up to par. In April, the Board of Education approved a supplemental capital budget that the district plans to finance with a $329 million bond.

About $155 million of that will go toward improvements at the receiving schools and another $60 million will fix up schools that are slated to be turned around or co- located with another school.

For the next 30 years, CPS will have to pay $25 million in interest and principal on the bond. This expense was not factored into the $43 million that CPS officials say they will save by undertaking these school actions.

CPS leaders have repeatedly cited budget problems as a rationale for closings–yet one reason CPS is facing perpetual large deficits is its already-existing debt. In the upcoming fiscal year, the district’s payment on principal and interest is scheduled to rise by about $100 million to $475 million.

Capital cost savings are also not likely to be higher than estimated. CPS officials lowered their original capital savings estimate and say the district will save $437 million over the next decade by not having to repair or maintain the 50-some buildings they are shuttering.

But only six of the closing schools have had recent assessments to determine their capital needs.  In all of these cases, the updated assessments caused CPS to lower its savings estimate.

In order for the district to save real money from closing schools, it would have sell off shuttered schools and lay off a lot of teachers, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate for the Philadelphia Research Institute, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trust.

CPS officials say they are going to work with city department heads to figure out what to do with vacant buildings, but there is no specific plan in place.

CPS has sought to steer the discussion away from teacher layoffs, though the closing schools have about 1,100 teachers.

“Many of these teachers will follow their students to welcoming schools per the joint CTU-CPS agreement included in last year’s teachers’ contract, which allows tenured teachers with Superior or Excellent ratings to follow students if their position is open at the welcoming school,” according to a CPS fact sheet.

But school closings will likely mean that class sizes will be bigger in the welcoming schools than in the closing ones, meaning that fewer teachers will be needed for the same number of students.  A quarter of class sizes at closing and welcoming schools have fewer than 20 students—way below recommended sizes of 28 for primary grades and 31 for intermediate grades.

Not including these affected schools, only 9 percent of schools have such small class sizes.

Changing demographics, changing landscape

CPS officials have stressed that the main reason schools need to close is that 145,000 fewer school-age children live in the city than in 2000. But, as many have pointed out, enrollment in CPS has declined by much less: In September of 2013, CPS had 32,000 fewer students than in September of 2000.

Neighborhood schools have been hit hard by the district’s opening of new “schools of choice,” whether magnet schools, charter schools or selective enrollment schools. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data found that in 14 predominantly black South Side and West Side communities that CPS defines as “underutilized,”an average of 54 percent of elementary students attend their neighborhood school. In other communities, two-thirds of elementary students attend their neighborhood school.

If all of the school actions are approved on Wednesday, the landscape of public education will continue to change–especially for students in particular neighborhoods,

Next fall, CPS will run about 84 percent of public elementary schools in Chicago, down from 86 percent this year. The rest will be run by private entities, most by charter operators or AUSL.

The shifting landscape will result in fewer neighborhood schools—schools where students are guaranteed a spot if they live within the attendance boundaries. In 2000, nearly 98 percent of elementary school students attended neighborhood schools.

Also next fall, the percentage of elementary schools with attendance boundaries will drop to 70 percent, down from 75 percent this year (should all closings be approved and with the planned opening of 10 more elementary charter schools).

CPS officials say this might be the wave of the future as they try to increase choices, without increasing the number of buildings in the district’s portfolio.

For parents like Miranda, the shift means one of two things:  taking their children further from home to get to the new neighborhood school, or filling out several applications to a ‘school of choice,’ then hoping and praying that they win a spot.

Like so many parents in the past few months, Miranda says going further away from home poses increased danger. Miranda is worried about a busy street that her children would have to cross to get to Jenner. Other parents in her school say that there’s an entrenched rivalry between Jenner and Manierre students, so much so that teams from the two schools aren’t even allowed to play each other in sports. They worry about fights and point to nasty posts on Facebook by Jenner students threatening those at Manierre.

Miranda says she doesn’t think this would be a problem at Newberry, LaSalle, Skinner North or Franklin—all of which are closer to Manierre than Jenner.

But these are all magnet or selective schools and assigning children to them is not the way CPS works these days.


Are These Schools or Pre-Prison Detainment Camps

How many Chicago juvenile arrests happen at school?    African American students were arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites or Latinos

By Linda Paul
From The Black Star Project, February 4, 2013

Arrests on CPS property by age:


Source: Chicago Police Department. Final column indicates total juvenile arrests on CPS property.

Tens of thousands of young people get arrested each year in Chicago, and a lot of those arrests happen on the grounds of Chicago Public Schools. Of course, arrests at school happen all across the country.

The connection even has a name: some people say schools are a worrisome ‘pipeline’ to the criminal justice system for many young people. In fact, last December, Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin held the first ever congressional hearings on the topic. One big worry for people who work with kids is the lingering records kids can get from those arrests.

I’m visiting the home of Chicago Public School teacher Valerie Collins, and her son, daughter and I are crowded around a laptop on their dining room table. Valerie’s kids are both public school graduates. I’d heard about a YouTube video that showed a really nasty fight at Sullivan High School in Chicago, and asked them to watch it with me.

“It’s got a million hits!,” Collins is exclaiming. “A million five hits. A million six!” They’re listening to a television announcers account: “We have video of this and first of all the video is graphic. Okay, it’s literally two girls, 17 and 18 beating up a 14 year old. The 14 year old suffered a concussion.”

I’m here to talk to Collins about arrests at school. She’s a math teacher at Simeon Career Academy, and before that she taught at both Lakeview and Phillips. I wanted to know if fights like the one we’re watching are once-in-a-blue moon events.

Collins says serious fights like this happen at some, but not all, public schools maybe a couple times a year. Her daughter says it “sucks,” but while she was in school she became sort of desensitized to such fights, “I wanna say it starts out as a joke because usually the way these, like fights, start off is off of something so ridiculous, so that it gets around the school and then everyone’s just like, ‘Oh, you know, there’s gonna be a fight this period, you know. Let’s all go out and see.”

“It’s worse with cell phones now,” Collins adds, “because with cell phones they text people that there’s going to be a fight. That’s what they do. They text that there’s going to be a fight and then unless we find out about it, everybody knows except for the administration. That’s what happens.”

There were about 4,600 arrests on public school grounds in 2011. That’s about a fifth of the 25,000 arrests of kids 17 and under that year in Chicago.

But of those 4,600 arrests, only 14 percent were for the really serious stuff, the felonies, like robbery, burglary and fights with serious injuries — like that one on the YouTube video.

Most arrests at school are for the still troubling, but less serious stuff — the misdemeanors.

“So you’ve got some smart-mouthed 15-year-old girl, who the teacher says to her, you know, Miss Thang, sit down.”

Here’s Herschella Conyers, clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago.

“And she says to the teacher, ‘You ain’t talkin’ to me.’ And off they go! And the teacher says, ‘I’ll put you outta my room.’ And the student says, you know, ‘I’ll whip your ass.’ Uh –here come the police ! It’s an ag assault. Now. Is the student absolutely wrong? Absolutely. Is there a better way to handle it? Yes.”

Conyers says there was a time when conduct wasn’t governed by the threat that the police would arrest. “It was, you know, here comes the principal, or God forbid – they’re about to call my mother. In those days it would be, could you just call the police and not my mother, you know?”

There were over 3,500 misdemeanor arrests at Chicago public schools in 2011. The biggest category was for simple battery. That could be a punch, a shove, or a fight –seemingly minor confrontations that these days are taken seriously because they can lead to retaliations.

Next was disorderly conduct. Basically? Kids creating a ruckus. No serious injuries.

And the third biggest category? Drug abuse violations. These are usually arrests for small quantities of marijuana, because if it was a large quantity, or drugs like cocaine or heroin-that would be a felony.

That last category, in particular, bothers Conyers’ colleague down the hall, Craig Futterman – also a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago. National studies, he says, show that white kids use and sell drugs at a rate higher than black kids do. And, says Futterman, that’s true in Chicago too.

“Where the vast majority of kids who use and sell drugs in high school are white. The vast majority of kids who are arrested for drugs, and or, worse, go to juvenile jail or go to juvenile prison for drugs, are African-American,” says Futterman.

Here’s what the numbers say about arrests at Chicago Public Schools in 2011. Almost 75 percent — three quarters — of all arrests were of African-American students. At the same time, in that same year, African-American students comprised about 42 percent of the student body. In fact in 2011, African American students were arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites or Latinos.

This kind of imbalance is causing a lot of consternation and was a big topic of conversation at Senator Durbin’s national hearings last month.

Craig Futterman and Herschella Conyers think that lower level offenses, the misdemeanors basically, are better handled within the school. By counselors, social workers and restorative justice practices like peer juries and peace circles.

Kristina Menzel is an attorney who represents kids in juvenile court. She says that when principals request arrest, unfortunately it’s sometimes a way for the school to pass a problem kid on to another system.

“Now part of the problem is schools don’t have money for these services, ” Menzel says. “There’s not money out there for education like there should be. So the schools use the courts to get services for these kids that are problematic.”

There has to be a better way to deal with this, she says, “Since once they’re brought in here, they’re more likely to re-offend. And if they go to the Department of Juvenile Justice, their probability of re-offending goes up even higher.”

As serious as getting arrested in school can be, what happens later can be even more serious. Follow our story of how a juvenile arrest record can mess up a young person’s prospects for finding a job.

Secretary Duncan: Keep Charters Out of the Muck, Please

July 09, 2009

by Gordon MacInnes

Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.

Wrong audience. Bad idea.

If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.

To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.

Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.

1.  The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.

2.  The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.

3.  NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.

4.  The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.

5.  There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.

Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.

The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.

Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.

Kelley Williams-Bolar’s Long, Winding Fight to Educate Her Daughters

by Julianne Hing I Wednesday, May 16 2012 on COLORLINES

Kelley Williams-Bolar is giving a speech in the dark. The Ohio mom is rattling off the standard remarks she’s delivered in public appearances since being catapulted onto the national stage last year. It’s an unseasonably warm day and the lights in the room are off, her face lit only by the glow of the computer screen in her father’s home. The address on the door outside is the one she used on her now-famous falsified documents—the ones that landed her in jail for nine days for illegally enrolling her daughters in a neighboring public school district.

“First, I talk about how I received my indictments, and then I give the laundry list of stipulations for my probation,” says Williams-Bolar, who is halfway through her two-year sentence. The 42-year-old single mother, with an otherwise spotless criminal record, is not allowed to drink, must submit to drug tests and reports monthly to a probation officer. She had to perform 80 hours of community service and pay $800 in restitution, as well as the cost of Summit County’s prosecution against her.

“I had to do a DNA test and swab my cheek like I was a bank robber,” Williams-Bolar says. She reaches for the letter outlining the terms of her probation. “I start with this everywhere I go, because I don’t ever want this to happen to another parent.”

As she moves into the rest of her speech, her voice, already warm and friendly, slows into a smooth, practiced delivery. Her remarks are broad but forceful. She calls for an end to educational inequality and the policies that landed her in jail. She wants more choices for parents whose kids are stuck in under-performing or unsafe schools. In February, she announced the formation of the Ohio Parents Union, part of a growing national network dedicated to giving parents exactly that kind of power. In the past year, Kelley Williams-Bolar has morphed from a desperate mom to an impassioned activist at the center of one of the nation’s most talked about shifts in education reform: the rapidly expanding role of parents in shaping dramatic overhauls of public schools.

Parents are no longer running just the bake sales and attending PTA meetings. All over the country, parents are joining—or being organized by—a movement that aims to spur more competition between schools and, ostensibly, better academic results for kids. Williams-Bolar, radicalized by her brush with the law, has joined the fray.

But as a mother, public school staffer, and now an activist, Williams-Bolar’s ordeal is also a bracing case study of a system that treats high-quality education as a commodity to be earned and parceled out, instead of the public good it’s commonly thought to be. In an era when more and more struggling school districts are turning to the private sector to solve their problems, the question everyone is grappling with now is basic: Can free market principles save public schools?

Tale of Two School Districts

Before her name became a fixture in the local newspaper, and before some activists declared her the “Rosa Parks of education,” Kelley Williams-Bolar was a regular parent trying to look out for her daughters.

“I was just a mom,” Williams-Bolar insists.

She works as a classroom aide for students with special needs in Akron Public Schools, and has been employed by the district on and off in some capacity since 1992. “From Asperger’s to Downs to autism, we deal with it all,” she says. She says that helping students with disabilities comes easy to her in part because her mom did similar work, and it seems true. She still spots students past and present in her neighborhood and tracks their progress. In the parking lot of an Applebee’s, she stops a former student and they exchange warm hellos. “He’s done well for himself, he’s in college now,” she says. She talks about their educational challenges and the progress that they worked to overcome. She rattles off their siblings’ names. It’s work she plainly enjoys.

Williams-Bolar did this work part-time for years, because she was married and in school herself part-time. But after getting divorced and moving into a home with the help of Akron’s public housing authority, she had to begin looking for full-time work to support her daughters. That changed things in her life; suddenly, she wasn’t around as often to mind her daughters, Kayla, then 13, and Jada, then 9.

It wasn’t until someone broke into their home in 2006 that Williams-Bolar started considering other school options. No one was home when it happened, but it left her rattled. “I worried about their safety. I’ve got two girls and they’re growing up. I couldn’t have them walking home alone from school,” Williams-Bolar said, careful not to indict Akron Public Schools, her employer. “I had taken care of my father, and he has taken care of me. I knew that he would be home to look after the girls.”

Williams-Bolar insists she was motivated primarily by these safety concerns when she took her kids out of Akron schools, not by the district’s poor academic performance. But the difference between its record and that of the Copley-Fairlawn School District, where her father’s house is located, is stark.

For the 2010-2011 year, Akron Public Schools met state-prescribed performance goals on just five of 26 categories of performance—such as high school graduation rates and standardized testing scores for reading and math—while Copley-Fairlawn School District met all 26 of its state benchmarks. That same academic year, Akron Public Schools failed to meet its yearly goals for test score improvement, which are set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. It was the seventh consecutive year that the district failed.

In the fall of 2006, Williams-Bolar enrolled Kayla and Jada in Copley-Fairlawn, using her father’s address. The district’s enrollment forms are extensive. It does not have open enrollment; to go to school there a student must either reside within its borders or pay a $9,000 annual tuition. Williams-Bolar, who last year made $28,000, couldn’t afford that kind of fee. So she listed her father’s address on the forms. When it came time to renew her driver’s license, she put down her father’s address as her primary one. Eventually, she also listed her father’s address with her credit union and with her employer. Her daughters were enrolled in the district for two school years, from 2006 through 2008.

KWB_paper_journal.jpgBy the time Williams-Bolar was indicted for this act, and later sentenced to 10 days in jail, her mug shot had been splashed across TV stations and newspapers for months. Her name would stay in the media for many weeks more as the nation erupted in shock over her case.

Williams-Bolar became a lightning rod for education reformers of all stripes. Petitions were set up by online organizing groups like Moms Rising and Color of Change, and together with one organized by a Massachusetts woman named Caitlin Lord garnered 180,000 signatures calling for Gov. John Kasich to pardon Williams-Bolar. The Taiwanese tabloid news animation group Next Media Animation even documented her story in one of their popular videos—something that Williams-Bolar is bemused by to this day. After being released from jail, she flew out to Los Angeles for a brutal taping of the Dr. Phil Show.

Williams-Bolar recounts all of this while sitting on the front stoop of her home more than a year later. Her life as a parent, and now an activist, is a far cry from the loud headlines her prosecution attracted. As she talks, she’s interrupted by a neighbor who’s amusing his toddler son by rolling his pickup truck in reverse, then neutral, then reverse, then neutral and back again. Together, they roll up and down the driveway, to the boy’s unending delight. Williams-Bolar and the father chat a bit, and the child’s silly, drooling grin is too precious to turn away from.

These days, say “Kelley Williams-Bolar” in Ohio and she represents a whole lot more than this affable neighbor. Most folks know who she is and at least a bit about her case, more if they have strong opinions about what she did for her daughters. Since being released from jail, she’s tried to keep to herself. She says that her political activism has made her unpopular on her job, at Buchtel High School. Still, she moves with ease throughout her community. She is at home in Akron, but fighting to move past the memories of her case.

Williams-Bolar’s attempt to ease her family from Akron to Copley came at precisely the wrong time. Copley-Fairlawn had been waging an aggressive war against parents who committed this kind of school residency fraud. The state consistently rates the district as “excellent,” which is the second-highest evaluation among six possible ratings. That makes it a popular magnet for parents all over the county. To its administrators and many of its parents, people like Williams-Bolar are thieves, literally stealing their “excellent” schools.

Copley-Fairlawn deployed a range of tactics to root out illegal enrollments. Among other things, the district hired private investigators to track parents, which is a common move for school districts taking a hard line on enrollment. In San Francisco, administrators did a similar thing, and forced offending parents to pay the cost of the investigation. In Washington D.C., City Council Chairman Kwame Brown introduced a bill last year that would set up a hotline for parents to report commuters who drive in from out of state and drop their kids off at D.C. schools.

School residency fraud is common, but criminal prosecutions are rare. Still, when they happen, they tend to happen to people like Williams-Bolar. Last year Tanya McDowell, a Connecticut parent who also happened to be a poor black mom, was convicted of larceny for literally stealing her son’s education when she enrolled him in a neighboring school district. “I just want to know: When does it become a crime to seek a better education for your child?” McDowell asked at the time, the Norwalk Patch reported.

School districts have answered by repeating a similar line: their coffers are only so deep, and because so much of public school funding comes from local property taxes, educating out-of-district students is an unfair burden for actual residents.

In 2008, Copley-Fairlawn stepped up its campaign by announcing a $100 bounty to anyone who turned in another family. Williams-Bolar remembers receiving a postcard in the mail announcing the reward to families throughout the district. “I guess it’s not just me, then,” Williams-Bolar recalls feeling. Plus, she was already deeply immersed in a process to make her daughters’ enrollment legal.

But by the time the postcard arrived, the district had been investigating Williams-Bolar for some time. A private investigator assigned to tail her kept watch outside her Akron home for months, documenting her family’s nights spent away from their father’s Copley address.

A Marketplace of Reforms

This past March Williams-Bolar packed her probation letter and headed off to speak at a Connecticut school reform rally. It was to be her most high-profile event as a newly minted education reform activist. The event was aimed at parents advocating Gov. Daniel Malloy’s reform agenda, which is rooted in a school choice model that deregulates public education, and it had drawn education reform celebrities. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who found national fame by carrying the mantle of aggressive school reform, was there. Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, helped organize it.

Williams-Bolar remembers the rally only in hazy, nervous moments. “I had to talk to myself onstage. I said, ‘Look. You’re here for a reason. Get yourself over to the mic and say what you came to say.’ ” The Hartford Courant reported that around 75 people were in the crowd that day. “People told me afterward that I brought people to tears, and I was like, ‘Did I?’ I don’t even remember seeing anyone in the crowd.”

But not everyone has been moved to tears by the controversial Parent Union movement to which Willams-Bolar has lent her story and energy. She says one of her first and most surprising realizations as a new activist has been just how polarized the school reform debate is. “You think everything is for a common cause, but it’s not. I was naïve about the conversation,” she says.

The day the announcement of her new Ohio Parents’ Union hit the local news was a hard one, she says. “The very next day at work, staff didn’t talk to me,” she recalled. “After the Parent Union was announced it didn’t take a lot to realize some of them were opposing it.”

The suite of school reform policies that dominate the mainstream discourse today, from school choice schemes and charter school expansion to teacher evaluation overhauls and the weakening of collective bargaining agreements, are fundamentally grounded in principles of market-based competition. Schools are products, teachers are laborers and students and parents are consumers.

In the case of vouchers, if parents are unhappy with the quality of the education at a school, they can pick up capital via their taxpayer dollars and move to an approved private school. In Ohio, that amounts to $4,250 annually for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade, and $5,000 per year for high school students who take part in the state’s EdChoice program. Ohio’s voucher system caps participation in the program at 60,000 students, but voucher advocates in the state point out that the program is at capacity. Parents are demanding still more options for their children.

Akron Public Schools received a “continuous improvement” designation in the Ohio state evaluations—the third from worst of six possible designations. As a result, it has been losing both students and the state money that comes with them to the voucher program. Just under 700 of the district’s 23,000 students took part in the voucher program this year, and the district is set to forfeit $2.7 million in state aid this year alone—money that instead has gone to private schools.”*

Some schools in the district are waging an aggressive marketing campaign to hold onto, or win back, families in the neighborhood. In the beginning of the year, Akron Public Schools sent out a 12-page brochure to parents who had removed their children to advertise the district’s offerings, including open enrollment, which makes the district open to even students who don’t live within its borders, and vocational programs and stable schools. Sending out the mailer, the Akron Beacon Journal reported, cost $6,000.

Williams-Bolar says she saw the symptoms of all this in staff meetings in Buchtel Public Schools, where administrators worried about the hemorrhaging of students encouraged staffers to think of the school as a business and to treat parents and students with outstanding customer service.

“I never thought of it that way,” Williams-Bolar says, remembering sitting in a staff meeting perplexed at the idea. The thing is, Kelley Williams-Bolar, who went to ridiculous lengths to be an informed and aggressive education consumer, could well be the poster child for the problems with the paradigm.

The worry of many is that voucher programs and school choice schemes amount to the privatization of public schools. Public tax dollars are being siphoned away from institutions that have historically been considered a public good, and not a commodity. And, critics argue, even the most comprehensive research on vouchers and school choice schemes show that they don’t lead to any meaningful gains in test scores.

Yet to parents fed up with the slow-moving bureaucracy of public schools, school choice schemes have an important narrative appeal. That fact is not lost on choice advocates, who have seized on parents as the new vanguard for pushing school choice, voucher and overhaul plans. The meme of parental empowerment has become a rallying cry, and wedge; who could be opposed to parental empowerment? But the role that some reformers imagine parents filling is narrowly defined, as are the intended reforms.

Privatization and competition in and of itself is not a problem, argues Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University. Outsourcing work that is “harnessed to public objectives” can often help public entities meet people’s social needs, Henig says, and doesn’t always come at the expense of the public good. But systemic privatization can lead to the long-term weakening of democracy when private entities operate without full transparency and outside of the full visibility of the public.

“Part of the problem is the simple notion of informed consumers as distinct from informed citizens,” Henig said. “Both the government and private actors can impinge upon your sense of being able to control your life—most people need to be able to act in both realms, both as consumers and as citizens who act to exercise their rights within democratic institutions, to either create better schools or to more closely regulate private providers.”

Williams-Bolar readily acknowledges that much of this hostile, increasingly arcane debate is new to her. “It’s a bad issue. I wouldn’t know how to even begin to solve it,” she said one afternoon over iced tea. “But I do know we’ve got to stop blaming and get the ball rolling.”

She knows as well that notions of democracy can be abstract ideas to parents who are fed up with their district schools. After pulling her daughters out of Copley schools, during her prosecution, Williams-Bolar enrolled her older daughter Kayla in a public high school and her younger daughter Jada in a private middle school, with the help of Ohio’s EdChoice program. She’s happy with the private school, and doesn’t like the idea that any entity would limit her options.

“Akron Public Schools wants to keep us all here so we can suffer while they get it right,” she said. “My daughters don’t have a second chance at their education.”

Winners and Losers

On Oct. 26, 2007, Williams-Bolar was called into a residency hearing with Copley-Fairlawn district staffers, who presented her with their evidence that she’d been stealing her daughters’ public education. They offered her a set of options, each of which included significant costs. The one that seemed most feasible was for Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward, to claim a Grandparent Power of Attorney, which is a legal designation that would name him as the girls’ guardian for the purposes of their education. A week after the hearing, Williams-Bolar filed for the change in Ohio Juvenile Court. Soon thereafter, she started receiving invoices from Copley-Fairlawn, billing the family $850 a month each for Kayla and Jada. The family refused to pay these bills.

The Grandparent Power of Attorney was eventually denied in June of 2008, because Williams-Bolar’s ex-husband didn’t sign off on the agreement, according to her lawyer. Life can be messy that way. The district also opposed the filing. Still, she was confident she’d attempted to handle the situation in a legal manner. The official denial came just weeks before the school year ended, and she didn’t enroll her daughters back in Copley-Fairlawn schools the following year.

Nonetheless, in October 2009, Williams-Bolar and her father were indicted for falsifying records.

“Kelley’s point was she thought she was trying to get the Grandparent Power of Attorney,” says her attorney David Singleton. “She didn’t think she should pay tuition, which she couldn’t afford anyway. She’s not a wealthy person, which is beside the point.”


Between 2005 and 2011, Copley-Fairlawn schools discovered 48 cases of school residency fraud; Williams-Bolar’s was the only case that ever ended up in court. “Every family except Ms. Williams-Bolar agreed to either pay the non-resident tuition rate, move into the district or remove their children from the school,” Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said in a statement to

“Ms. Williams-Bolar repeatedly refused to cooperate for many months, thus her case was turned over to my office for prosecution,” Walsh continued, underlining that falsifying information on government documents amounts to a felony offense. Walsh said she was compelled by the evidence. “Ms. Williams-Bolar refused the options presented to her that would have prevented felony charges.”

The Copley-Fairlawn School District insists that its hands were tied as well. In an interview with Colorlines, Superintendent Brian Poe said the district went to great lengths to resolve the issue without legal action, but was forced to hand over evidence to Walsh’s office.

Pinning down exactly who controlled the levers in Williams-Bolar’s case is difficult, as everyone seemed interested in making her a household name. After the presiding judge Patricia Cosgrove handed down her sentence, she said she hoped Williams-Bolar’s case would serve as an example to others. “I felt some punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school districts,” Cosgrove told ABC.

Cosgrove spoke an uneasy truth: prosecuting Kelley Williams-Bolar seemed like an easy way to warn off others. But not every family is as vulnerable as moms like Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell.

Take the case of Mark Ebner, a Columbus, Ohio, parent who illegally enrolled his children in a neighboring suburban school district. Williams-Bolar’s attorney, Singleton, considers the case illustrative. The Ebner family’s primary residence was a $1 million property just outside the suburban district’s borders. When Ebner found out that private investigators were tailing him, the Columbus Dispatch reported, he arranged for a house swap with relatives inside the district—and then sued the district for spying on him. The same year that Williams-Bolar and her daughters were swallowed up by her court case, the Ebners were handily defeating the rules.

The point, Singleton said, is that school residency fraud—far from being limited to poor black parents—is an activity that parents of all classes engage in. But those with the financial means and social capital to finagle their way out of sticky situations escape the punishments and public shaming Williams-Bolar faced. Like in any marketplace, the more capital you have, the better you’ll fare.

Williams-Bolar doesn’t deny that she falsified the documents, and accepts full responsibility for what she did, but is also still confounded by the whole thing.

“They always treated [my family’s homes] as his house or my house, his house or my house,” Williams-Bolar said. “This is a family house. I help my father pay the bills, I help mow the lawn, I cook and clean for him. The girls have their own room here, I have my own room here.”

In the economy of public education, though, it’s less about squishy ideas of families and homes and more about concrete goods like houses and addresses.

“We have a community that has made it clear to us that they want to provide an education for students who live within our district boundaries,” insists Superintendent Poe. He says that he was particularly disappointed in the way the case was handled by the media. “It was being portrayed as if we didn’t care for the children. But we always sit down with families and are very open. We just want families to be forthright.”

‘I Turn No One Down’

Which is why advocates of parental power and choice all over the country are so compelled by Williams-Bolar’s story. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of Kelley Williams-Bolars in Alabama,” says Marcus Lundy, who works on workforce development and education reform issues in the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. “The intent is to try to get her to Birmingham to tell her story because her story is the story of many people who live in one area but are limited by their zip code into poor and underperforming schools.”

Lundy wants Williams-Bolar to help advocate for HB 541, a hotly contested bill which would have authorized the creation of 20 charter schools in the state. It passed the Senate, but failed in the House in the waning days of the legislative session.

“If people take inventory of some of the maneuvering that parents have had to do historically to take advantage of the better school systems they would figure that there is no need to hide, to cheat, to lie, to stretch the truth when all they’d have to do is take advantage of parental choice or one educational option of what charter schools would allow,” Lundy says. “And everything would be above the board.”

Williams-Bolar is ready to lend her time to campaigns like Lundy’s—and to any and everything that just may get the “ball rolling,” as she put it. “I don’t say no to anything,” she says. “I turn no one down.”

But her activism is something she has to juggle along with other basic struggles to keep her family afloat. Last week, Williams-Bolar’s father, who Summit County also prosecuted, passed away in prison from complications related to a stroke he suffered in January. Williams spent much of his jail time hospitalized, and had just a month left in his yearlong prison sentence for unrelated fraud charges that arose during the fight with Copley schools.

In September of last year following an international outcry amplified by multiple groups’ online organizing campaigns, Gov. John Kasich, who is a proponent of school choice and voucher schemes, went against the recommendations of the Summit County prosecutors and the Ohio parole board and reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors.

In her father’s living room, she keeps her pardon certificate in the center of the mantle. “I consider these my freedom papers,” Williams-Bolar said. Prior to his passing away, she planned to move back in with him at his Copley Township home so she could be there to take care of him during his transition. Now with his passing, her plans are up in the air.

She still sees her future as an uncertain, but hopeful swath of new possibility. This month the family will celebrate Kayla’s high school graduation. Jada, Williams-Bolar’s younger daughter, is headed to a private high school next year and will qualify for tuition help from Ohio’s voucher program. Williams-Bolar spent months preparing an application to the exclusive Catholic all-girls’ school in Akron, and when the acceptance letter arrived she was decidedly happier than her daughter, who wanted to go to a co-ed high school. The tony girls school is tucked away on a verdant campus, and is a top-performing school.

“I told her even one year here will help set you up for good things to come down the line,” Williams-Bolar said. “I told her, ‘You’ll see.’ “

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*A previous version of this story incorrectly included charter school transfers in the EdChoice voucher program. Also, the story has been updated to note that Copley-Fairlawn schools opposed Williams-Bolar’s filing to give her father Grandparent Power of Attorney.

The Race at the Top vs. Students Who Are Not

By Marilyn Rhames / February 15, 2012 on Education Week

I was at the height of my senior year. Elected vice president of my class and voted “Most Likely to Succeed” for the yearbook. Accepted into every college to which I had applied, and in a close race for the coveted title of Valedictorian. I was on top of the world—unstoppable. But LaMont Jackson, who was in my division, was not impressed.

“You ain’t that smart,” he told me, out of the blue. “You’re smart in this school full of blacks, but wait until you go to college with all those white kids. Their high schools are way better, and you’re going to see just how dumb you really are.”

With scathing indignation, I told him not to project his self-esteem issues onto me. He had an inferiority complex and I felt sorry for him, I said. But truth be told, LaMont had actually exposed me. He had unleashed my deepest, darkest fear about my brassy bright future. How would I fare in the white world of higher education?

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, spending food stamps at the grocery store. Every year my birthday gift was the cake. And the only time I went to a museum or to the zoo was during school field trips. My mother loved her eight children, but she never read books to us or volunteered at our school. She spent most of her time cooking, cleaning, and managing the home. She bought a set of World Book encyclopedias for us and took us to church twice a week to study the Bible. She relied on the school to provide the academics, and she took care of everything else. She did a wonderful job with what she had, but I wondered how my white professors would perceive her, and me.

I recently read a moving piece by a budding journalist named Natasha Santos, and all my memories of LaMont came rushing back. With a couple of years of college under her belt, Santos grapples with whether her violent, impoverished neighborhood exists because of racism or because of the lack of personal responsibility. She wonders if being black will stop her from achieving success.

Little kids struggle with this, too. One year, I took my third grade class on a trip to Navy Pier. We waited about 20 minutes for our bus to arrive to take us back to school, but when it came my student Malik (not real name) was visibly upset. “Why were all the buses that picked up the white kids clean and shiny, but the bus that came to get us is all dirty?” he asked. Our yellow school bus was the only one out of dozens that was covered with dirty snow and salt. I didn’t know how to answer him.

LaMont’s words followed me to Dominican University, a beautiful, Catholic, liberal arts college surrounded by mini-mansions in suburban River Forest, Illinois. My parents dropped me off with a single suitcase and a small black trunk. We watched white students unload their possessions from U-Haul trucks. I made friends soon enough, but we lived as strangers beyond the school walls. Over Spring Break they literally went on vacation while I racked up more hours at my part-time job.

Academically, I was always playing catch-up in math and science classes. My professors assumed I came in knowing many things that I had never even heard of, despite the fact that I had taken honors physics and biology in high school. I thought my science teachers had been rigorous but I had no one to compare them to. I often felt bewildered and discouraged in my college-level science courses. I was embarrassed at first, and then I got angry. I entered college thinking I would eventually become a doctor, but I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. (I later learned this is a national trend among all races.)

LaMont was right: I was not as “smart” as I thought I was. Many of the white kids at my college had more opportunities to learn than I had. They had better schools, better teachers. They had tutors. They traveled to tourist destinations. The expectation that they would go to college began at birth.

LaMont was wrong: He thought the inequity would make me give up. He thought the unfair game of education meant black girls like me were destined to lose. Instead, it made me all the more determined to find a path to success, to chart my own course. I was not a member of the race at the top, but I clung to the belief that there was room at the top for me.

I wish LaMont could read this blog. I wish he was here. In the summer after we graduated from high school, LaMont was gunned down in a drive by shooting. It hurt me deeply, but it didn’t even make the local news. I dedicate this post to him, to Santos, and to the millions of minority students in America who are fighting to believe they can succeed.

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is a science teacher at a charter school in Chicago and holds masters degrees in education and journalism. A former reporter for People and Time, she also won various awards while at Newsday and The Journal News in New York. An educator for eight years, Marilyn is currently a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and the founder of a start-up nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. This blog offers her perspectives on health and wellness in the classroom, charter schools, and the need for education reform.

In Memphis Classrooms, the Ghost of Segregation Lingers On

FEB 13 2012 on The Atlantic

 Thirty years ago, the school district tried and failed to bring black and white students together. Will its latest effort undermine one of the city’s most successful schools?

Manassas High School students peruse books during a Reading is Fundamental rally. (AP Photo/Jim Weber)


Samantha Crawford, an 18-year-old high-school senior, doesn’t like to use the word “ghetto” to describe her neighborhood in the center of Memphis, Tennessee, but she can’t think of a better one. In Binghampton, people drink and hang out. They are transient, moving from apartment to apartment and job to job. Many don’t work at all. Samantha speculates that few have finished college, or even high school.

In the past two years, though, Samantha has begun to look at her neighborhood as an inspiration. “It’s not about where I stay, or wherever I come from, but what I’m going to make of it,” she says.

Samantha once earned only Bs and Cs. Now, she makes straight As. She had dreamed of college, but wasn’t sure how she’d get there. Now, she’s feeling overwhelmed by the choices available to her. In the past few months, she received five college acceptance letters, along with a scholarship to a local community college.

She attributes her success to her family, by which she means her mom, but also her teachers and principal at Manassas High School, located across town in North Memphis. “If you fail at Manassas…” she says, before stopping herself. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”

The reforms that drove her school’s success are now up in the air, however. A contentious merger plan with the suburban school district surrounding Memphis has roiled the city, jeopardizing an effort to overhaul the struggling district and setting up a potential clash between the two leading approaches to school reform.

Manassas, an all-black, nearly all-poor school, has a lot going for it: a new building, a new set of intensely dedicated teachers who willingly work on Saturdays, and the attention — and money — of national foundations and advocacy groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The principal, James Griffin, is a soft-spoken former football player who wears rectangular glasses and immaculate suits and spends his days in classrooms, monitoring and helping teachers. He makes personal calls to students who fall behind.

The school could be a poster child for the “no-excuses” education reform movement, which argues that schools and teachers should be able to help all students succeed, regardless of the challenges they face outside of school — including broken families, violence and poverty. Last year, 111 of 131 seniors who applied to college were accepted. (The graduating class was 150.) The previous year, only 25 graduating seniors had been accepted.

Manassas is among a handful of schools in Memphis that have successfully piloted reforms based on the no-excuses ideas that have also driven the charter-school movement. Administrators expect the success to spread this year, following a full slate of changes, including a new intensive teacher-evaluation system with multiple classroom observations per year that was rolled out in the fall. Indispensable to the project has been a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supplemented by funding from local donors. The money has paid for consultants who helped hire new mission-driven principals and teachers like Griffin, and new technology, including video cameras to record teachers in the classroom. It will eventually fund bonus pay for teachers who raise student achievement.

But last winter, the Memphis school board essentially gave up, endangering the reform work when they voted to dissolve the school district into the whiter, wealthier suburban district that rings the city. The merger means the city school board will have to disband and be replaced by a joint city-suburban board. The administrators who initiated the reform effort may be removed.

City voters upheld the move, which was partly about money. The suburban county that encompasses Memphis has always helped fund education within the city. Although the suburbs run their own schools, they are not completely autonomous. A state law passed in 1982 banned them from breaking away into an independent school district — something many suburban areas were interested in doing in the aftermath of school desegregation, when white families fleeing from cities and towns filled up suburban neighborhoods.

Until now, this meant that Memphis could benefit from suburban funding while maintaining its own board and making its own decisions about how the money would be spent. But when Republicans took over the state assembly in 2010, it seemed likely they would repeal the 1982 law, making it possible for the suburbs to finally create their own district and withdraw their fiscal support. The Memphis school board acted before they had a chance to do so: By choosing to dissolve into the wealthier surrounding district, the board essentially decided to give up the school district’s autonomy in order to keep the funds rolling in.

Memphis school board members and administrators cite another reason for the merger, however. For the district to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, school officials say they need to share not just funding with middle-class schools, but also, if possible, students, teachers, and the involved parents who help drive suburban success. “We know that if there’s diversity, and it’s socioeconomic diversity, those students tend to perform better. It’s less homogenous,” says Tomeka Hart, a school board member and president of the Memphis Urban League.

Consolidating with the county schools is not just about protecting funding. It’s a last-ditch effort to revive the goals of the school desegregation movement from a half-century ago. For two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Memphis schools remained starkly segregated. In 1973, a federal court ordered Memphis to integrate its schools using busing, but the program met with massive resistance from whites. Many fled for the suburbs or private schools. “Clearly people feel like this is a continuation of something,” says Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis who has studied school desegregation in Memphis. “In many ways it is, from an ideas standpoint.”

Now, the two reform movements — one that argues schools should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve on their own, and another that argues schools are constrained by conditions beyond their control like poverty and segregation — are on a collision course in Memphis. The merger, which will be completed by next year, has led some to worry that Gates could pull its funds and the reforms could come to a halt, while suburban residents have protested against joining their school district with the high-minority, high-poverty Memphis schools. Although Memphis leaders have said a revival of busing for either white or black students is highly unlikely, fears among parents persist. Some towns in the suburbs are now talking of setting up their own separate districts. Both opponents and advocates have warned that many white families could move out of the county altogether.

Despite the obstacles, school leaders are hoping the merger could present a third way to the warring sides in the larger debate about how to reform education. The Memphis school superintendent, Kriner Cash, who has led the teacher-focused reform effort, is excited about the city-county merger — even though it could mean he loses his job.

“This is controversial,” he says, acknowledging that his views on the merger may clash with the no-excuses doctrine that has defined his tenure in the district. “The gap closes when folks go to school together, when they play together, when they’re in afterschool programs together, and when they live in the same communities together,” he says. “It’s a both-and. It’s not an either-or. That is the vision of this new district for me.”

*     *     *

Memphis is a place of contrasts. It’s the poorest large metropolitan area in America, according to the latest census data. Inside the city limits, rundown houses and liquor stores barricaded behind iron bars make the poverty palpable. The city spans a lot of land, and in many places it is sparsely populated, with empty lots stretching across multiple acres.

Education researchers have long known that poverty is linked to low student achievement, and Memphis hasn’t been an exception. The city schools are the worst in Tennessee, which in turn ranks near the bottom on national achievement tests.

Beyond the city limits, however, new suburban malls bustle with activity. Housing along the inner ring is showing its age, but large houses with sweeping lawns have gone up on the outskirts. Shelby County encompasses the city, but has its own semi-independent school district covering the suburban areas. (Some tax funding is shared, but the school districts are run separately.) It is one of the wealthiest districts in the state. The percentage of students who pass state exams in the suburbs is more than double the percentage in the city.

The city’s deep divides are partly a function of a previous effort to unite it 40 years ago. In 1968, the city’s schools were two-thirds white and a third black. Just five years later, once the busing initiative began, the ratio flipped: Two-thirds of students were black, and a third were white.

In the first year of busing, the old Manassas High School was refitted with air conditioning and enrolled some white students, but integration didn’t last long. When Samantha Crawford’s mother, Quintonia, attended Manassas in the mid-1980s, only two white students were enrolled, and both lived in the neighborhood. It was a good school then — discipline was strict, she says — but it’s even better now.

“When Mr. Griffin got there, he promoted college a lot more than it had been promoted,” says Crawford, who didn’t go to college herself and who now works as a hotel banquet server. “And they have some great teachers.”

The school, now in a brand-new building paid for in part by suburban tax dollars, stands on a desolate stretch of road in northern Memphis. Nearby, an abandoned chimney reaching out of an empty field is all that remains of an old Firestone factory. The only other signs of life are a Baptist church and a liquor store. The 550 students at Manassas don’t fill the cavernous space, which has room for twice as many. Even during class changes, the school has a hushed, empty feel to it.

Manassas was built on what used to be housing projects, meaning a major source of students no longer exists. But the small size allows for Griffin, the principal, to pay close attention to the remaining students. After calling a child who has fallen behind, Griffin often brings in the family to see him in person. He once traveled to the workplace of a mother who couldn’t make it to the school.

Griffin — trained by one of the private groups that have flocked to the city in the last three years to help improve its struggling schools — has been on the job a year and a half. Many of the teachers are also new after Griffin replaced nearly half the staff. Classes of 15 students spread out in classrooms big enough for 40, with banks of computers lining the walls. Empty rooms have been converted into a student “dorm room,” where seniors research colleges, a “data lounge,” for the teachers to study student progress on weekly tests, and a museum to commemorate Manassas High’s century-long legacy as an all-black school. “Find a way, or make a way” is Griffin’s slogan.

Griffin’s belief that teachers alone can raise the achievement and aspirations of children who live in poverty is based on experience. He was born when his mother was in eighth grade and lived with his grandparents after they kicked his mother out of the house. They were solidly working-class; his grandmother was a school custodian and his grandfather a factory worker. They spoiled him, but weekends at the house often got out of hand. He remembers his grandmother playing dice with the neighbors, and lots of alcohol. On one occasion, his mother stopped by to see him and found him drunk. He was four.

After a court battle, his mother gained custody and took him in, but she also struggled to provide a good home. She already had another baby, and soon had three more. She was illiterate, so Griffin read the mail out loud to her every afternoon. The family lived on $260 a month, and often slept on relatives’ couches. They also spent time in a homeless shelter. On at least one night, they slept on the street. By the time he reached 12th grade, Griffin had attended 11 different schools. He was often in trouble, and barely passing his classes.

In his last year, one of his teachers pushed him to try for college. He did extra-credit assignments to bring up his grades, and took the ACT six times before he scored high enough to be eligible for admission. The University of Tennessee-Martin accepted him on a football scholarship. From there, he eventually earned his master’s degree and became a teacher. He’s now working on a doctorate.

Griffin says his childhood mirrors that of many of his students at Manassas, where 95 percent of students are poor and 99 percent are minorities. In Memphis as a whole, 87 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals. Two-thirds come from single-parent families. Nearly a third of students change schools each year. Griffin often uses his life story to remind his teachers and students that people who believe poverty is an excuse for failure are wrong.

“They say you’ve got to have a middle-class parent to make sure a child is successful, but what about me? Was I an anomaly?” he says. “I had teachers that kept me in the game and got me to stay in school, and that’s what it takes.”

Quincy Hassell lives in a working-class black neighborhood in East Memphis and moved around to various schools within Memphis before ending up at Manassas this year. Already he has internalized Griffin’s message. Quincy went from a 1.8 grade-point average last year to a 3.5 this year. He’s aiming for a 3.8, and out of the 10 colleges he applied to, five have already accepted him. “At this school, they woke me up,” Quincy says. “Do you want to be on the corner begging for money, or do you want to do something with yourself?”

Griffin’s conviction that all children can succeed with enough teacher attention and skill is also grounded in necessity. After busing failed in Memphis — and many cities like it — teachers and principals in urban schools were left to make the best of very difficult student populations. Although research has shown that the more concentrated the poverty in a school, the worse children perform, the latest generation of education reformers has seized on evidence that teachers are the single greatest factor affecting a child’s learning in school.

Memphis appears to be further proof that segregated urban schools can improve despite the odds. In 2011, the school district posted the biggest test-score gains in the state.

Josh Edelman, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the progress on adopting reforms in Memphis is “exciting.” Although the merger vote prompted some Memphis leaders to worry that Gates would pull its funds, the foundation has said it will stay committed to the city, “as long as effective teaching and improved outcomes for all students remains a top priority.” Edelman says he’s hoping the merger of the two districts will allow the teacher-focused work to expand to a larger number of students.

The suburban district is pursuing its own programs to improve teaching. The merger has pitted the two bureaucracies against each other, however, and administrators in both systems have become defensive about their reform strategies, and dismissive of the other side’s efforts.

“I think the achievement gap takes a lot of different approaches to close. It starts with great teachers and great leadership,” Edelman says. “And I do think kids learn a lot from each other.”

Griffin and his supervisors in the Memphis district offices argue that this mixing of students is what is missing in their efforts. What if the barriers between inner-city and suburban schools were broken down, so students could learn from one other? And what if then, Manassas could combine its intensive academics with another sort of education, in which students pick up the social and cultural tools they will need to negotiate the outside world they’ll someday encounter? What if the struggling schools in Memphis didn’t have to turn themselves around alone?

“It’s not that children are smarter” in the suburbs, says Cash, who studied integration as a master’s student at Stanford University and led the schools in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., for nine years. “They’ve had more exposure to the things that equate to school-smart … concepts, words and experiences that equate to book-knowledge, and to test-knowledge.”

Integrating schools isn’t enough to completely close the achievement gap, but research has also found that mixing students by race and class can significantly improve their outcomes. “We ought to have the best ingredients for our students,” Griffin says. “That mixing would enhance their world.”

After taking over at Manassas last year, Griffin tried to add in that missing element to his school. Most of his students have never left the city limits, and many have never left their immediate neighborhood, he says. Few have had exposure to adults with white-collar jobs besides their teachers. Even if his students do well in high school, it’s unclear they’ll make it through college, where they will have to fend for themselves in a more diverse environment. Nationally, only 40 percent of black college students graduate from college, compared to 60 percent of whites. Minority graduation rates are the worst at public universities and community colleges — the types of schools where most Manassas students go.

Griffin talked to a private school in the suburbs about creating an exchange, so the students could meet occasionally to talk about where they were from and learn from one another. The planning was going well, until, Griffin says, the private-school administrators realized his vision included not just trips to the suburbs for his students, but trips to Manassas for the white students. The private school backed out.

The Memphis merger could present a new opportunity to continue the reforms introduced by Cash, while also allowing city schools and their more affluent neighbors to exchange resources, teachers and perhaps, someday, students. Irving Hamer, a deputy superintendent in Memphis, says that the “unspoken intent” is to “attempt to do some reconciliation between race and class here.”

When the district expands to encompass the entire county, students both inside the city limits and out in the suburbs will ostensibly have wider choices about where to go to school, which could provide opportunities for voluntary student mixing. For years, the city has been able to retain its small proportion of white students largely through a set of selective magnet schools that are attractive to middle-class families. In a joint suburban-city district, poor students from the inner city might also have the option of choosing a suburban school instead of the one in their neighborhood. (Manassas, for example, has attracted students from all over the city district because of its improving reputation.)

But Hamer says a new round of busing is a very unlikely outcome of the merger. “We’ve had our busing episodes, and we’re not reinventing those,” he says. “It’s not coming back.” Instead, he predicts the merger could lead suburban areas to separate from the consolidated district and white families to move away.

Last November, more than 100 residents of Bartlett, a small city situated just over the county line from Memphis, gathered for a town meeting in a converted church. Nearly all were white, although the number of black residents in Bartlett has increased to 16 percent in recent years. (The racial make-up of the suburbs has changed significantly in the past decade as many black middle-class residents of Memphis have moved in, often in search of better schools.) After a long prayer by a local pastor, the mayor, Keith McDonald, told the crowd that more than 1,000 students had left the local schools since the Memphis school board voted to dissolve itself the previous year.

“The people in Memphis don’t get it,” he said. “If these people leave, the burden goes up on all of us.”

Bartlett, along with two other towns in Shelby County, is now considering whether to create a separate school district — under the same state law that prompted the merger — before the two districts join next year. A consultant released a report this January suggesting a new district wouldn’t put too great a burden on the towns’ taxpayers. It is unclear if they will have to buy the school buildings from the county, however, which could be costly. And the state law is likely to face challenges in court by advocates of the consolidation.

Many residents believe the cost will be worth it. “I would rather the decisions about our schools be made by my neighbors, rather than an entire metro area that maybe doesn’t have the best interest of my kids at heart,” said Chris Huffstetler, 43, a 14-year Bartlett resident and father of three, at the town meeting. “I trust you guys. I trust my neighbors.” The audience broke into applause.

Later, his wife, Lisa Huffstetler, 46, explained that while she understood that difficult home lives of students are a challenge for Memphis, the district has a history of corruption and misspending money. “We’ve watched them make ridiculous decisions, one after the other,” she says. “We’re terrified for the education of our kids.”

Samantha Crawford, who wants to be a criminal profiler, a career she learned about on TV, hopes the suburban towns won’t secede. She has studied the merger, and thinks it could lift Memphis schools to new heights. “Some people don’t know this, but schools in Cordova and Germantown, they challenge them harder than they challenge us,” she says, referring to the suburbs. “If we all get together and become as one, we’ll get a better education.”

The merger seems to have inspired school reformers in Memphis to broaden their hopes about what’s possible in school reform, but Manassas’s gleaming but half-empty halls may never be filled with a blend of middle-class and lower-income students. “If we’re going to get the kind of pop where the Memphis city schools aren’t the bottom percent of schools in the state, which … they will always be because of the poverty,” says Cash, “then what you have to do is you have to get kids into the same classes.” Without that mix, some now say, the achievement gap may shrink, but it won’t close completely.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Memphis suburbs still seeking a way out of school merger, integration

State Rep. Curry Todd files bill to transfer Shelby school buildings to municipal districts

State Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, filed a bill in Nashville on Tuesday that would transfer county school buildings to new municipal school districts for free.

The legislation, which has not yet started through the review process, calls for any indebtedness on the buildings transferred to the municipality to remain with the countywide system.

“That sounds like what we were asking for,” Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said, acknowledging that he had heard about the bill but not read it.

The bill, House Bill 2954, was one of three regarding education filed by the Collierville House member Tuesday. One only stated that the state department of education would provide assistance to a transition planning commission.

The third bill, however, would open the door for combining individual municipal school districts. It states that if there is consolidation of another school system with the county school system “then two (2) or more cities in the county may create a joint city school system.”

The three proposed bills appear in keeping with the wishes of outlying governments seeking to start their own school systems and comes amid the ongoing debate between the merged Memphis and Shelby County school systems and efforts by the six outlying suburbs to start their own school systems.

The buildings are a key factor in the potential cost for a new municipal school system. Bartlett, for example, has put an estimated value of $65 million on the 11 buildings within that city’s boundaries — a cost that, if the suburb was required to pay for the buildings, would significantly increase the expenses necessary to start a municipal school district.

Todd was co-author of the Norris-Todd bill in last year’s legislative session that allows municipalities to start their own school systems.

Todd’s property transfer bill states that if a city forms a school system in a county following school consolidation, “the county board of education shall convey and transfer title to all county school property lying within the new school system to the new city or joint city board of education.”

McDonald said the legislation is in keeping with the suburban stance that its citizens, as county taxpayers, have paid for the school buildings, or at least a portion of them. And, he said, they will continue to pay the debt service on the bonds that remain with Shelby County by paying county property taxes.

Opponents to the transfer of the facilities have promised to fight any effort for the suburbs to get the buildings, particularly without cost.

When reports of the potential legislation regarding the buildings emerged earlier this month, Shelby County unified school board member Martavius Jones said he will seek class-action status as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit. He repeated that vow Tuesday night.

“It was just a matter of when, not if,” Jones said. “With the work the municipal districts are undertaking, with the efforts of Sen. Norris and Rep. Todd to impede consolidation, I figured this would come about.”

Todd’s proposed legislation also addresses the “rural bonds” for construction costs associated primarily with Arlington High. Residents outside the city of Memphis pay an extra four cents on their county property tax rate to cover those bonds.

The bill states the county and the new municipal school district “shall enter into an agreement as to the disposition of existing bonded indebtedness” regarding the rural bonds.

After transfer of the county buildings to the cities, the municipal system will be responsible for the insurance, operation and any costs associated with the property, plus any future improvements, according to the bill’s language.

Efforts to reach Todd were unsuccessful Tuesday. Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, whose district touches several suburbs, said he helped with the research and supports the bill.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “It’s been put in, and we’ll see how it comes out.”

— Clay Bailey: (901) 529-2393

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