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School Reports

The Flyer's guide to the good, the bad, and the half-baked findings in the latest study of the Memphis City Schools.

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About eight hours.

That's how long it took me to read the MGT of America study of the Memphis City Schools (MCS), which is supposed to be a "blueprint" for policy as well as for spending a big chunk of your tax money for the next five years.

I got paid to read it, with frequent breaks to snack, look out the window, and read newspapers. I didn't have to pay $39.42 for my copy but my employer did, and the report, thicker than the phone book and held together by a single silver ring, doesn't even have a cover. And I wasn't facing daily deadlines like most reporters who cover education.

Also, I lied.

I read every word of Pat Conroy's My Losing Season last week, but I skipped some of the MGT report. Who reads the whole phone book? I did read part of all 15 sections and the recommendations at the end of each section. I read it as a reporter who has written frequently about Memphis schools for 20 years, a former teacher, a parent with kids in the system since 1991, a lottery winner in the optional schools game, an occasional visitor to a dozen or so schools, a high school sports fan, and a booster club member.

In other words, I brought a combination of knowledge, ignorance, prejudice, vested interest, and a slice of firsthand exposure to my reading, just like the few or many (who knows?) nonprofessionals who will take the trouble to read parts of the report.

That's the trouble with reports. They're usually unreadable, especially when it makes your arm sore to carry them around. So they sit on the shelf, the media mine a few nuggets, the consultants walk off with $575,000, and the organization under scrutiny says thank you very much and goes on its merry way, making the same mistakes.

But I don't think that will happen this time. For one thing, there's some pretty eye-opening stuff in this report, like an average construction overrun of 38 percent. There's some lame stuff too, like the use of outdated 1997-98 data, and inaccurate data at that. But the report isn't personal. The last schools study, produced at the end of Willie Herenton's stint as superintendent, was very personal and very critical. Supt. Johnnie B. Watson, on the other hand, gets good marks from everyone surveyed by MGT. Finally, whether it's due to outrage, financial worries, altruism, or frustration at the current stalemate, people in Memphis and Shelby County seem ready to get behind something and somebody and make some changes.

Here, then, is one reader's take on what's right and wrong with the report and what's most likely to lead to change.

* Size matters. Enrollment equals money in Memphis and Shelby County, where funding is doled out according to a formula that links $3 for city school construction to every $1 spent on county school construction.

So what, exactly, is the current MCS enrollment? The report says 118,200 in some places, 113,730 in others. The MCS central office says 117,916. A difference of 4,500 students is a difference of a few million dollars in school construction funds. More important, the different numbers suggest that nobody really knows the correct number.

With all the publicity in recent years about failing Memphis schools, a dropout rate of around 30 percent, declining graduation totals, and the growing suburban and private school systems, it's reasonable to wonder if the city enrollment is overstated. MCS has every financial incentive to keep the count as high as possible because state and county funding are based on enrollment. Instead of adding to the confusion, the first thing MGT should have done was audit the enrollment.

* Garbage in, garbage out. The study uses 1997-98 data to compare Memphis with four other urban school systems. Worse, the tables inaccurately list MCS minority enrollment at 71 percent and poverty enrollment at 34 percent when the correct numbers, according to MCS, are 91 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

In other sections of the report, the consultants get the numbers right. But this begs the question: Is the inconsistency due to carelessness or laziness on the part of MGT? It takes an hour, tops, to contact four school systems and get current data. Or is the problem that nobody really knows or cares how many students actually fit the definition of "poor"?

* The free lunch. Again, MCS (and individual schools and parents) has financial incentives to put up a big poverty number because poor students get federal funds. There is strong evidence that MCS is neither as big nor as poor as it says it is.

School systems, researchers, and the media have come to equate "poor" with being eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. (Over 90 percent of those eligible fall into the "free" category.) It's both a handy shorthand and an excuse for not doing well on tests and report cards.

The trouble is, it's not accurate. The determining factor is household income. If it falls below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, you're in. But guess what: Nobody's checking.

"Schools do not need to make eligibility determinations of the students each year, receiving the same level of federal cash they received the last year they made eligibility determinations and reported meal counts," the MGT report says.

The same level of federal cash.

What's more, the report says, "The federal meal reimbursements for free and reduced price meals are much higher than for meals paid for by students."

Twelve city schools made a profit on "free" lunches last year, and one of them, Gordon Elementary, made $73,135. So, Mr./Ms. Principal, do you want to require all your students and parents to submit fresh proof of household income and get an accurate profile, or do you want to use that data that's been sitting in the filing cabinet since the start of the Clinton administration and turn your cafeteria into a profit center?

Memphis and the country have enjoyed a prosperous decade. Census 2000 showed household income, home ownership, and housing prices rising. Secretaries and warehouse workers now make $25,000 a year. The average MCS teacher's salary is over $44,000. Yet three out of four city school students are in "poverty." Or maybe only one out of three.

But MGT not only did not suggest a free- lunch audit, it recommended that MCS "explore the possibility" of making a blanket declaration of poverty for more schools, a sort of mass certification known as "Provision 3."

* Did you know? At 11 schools, lunch begins before 10 a.m., and at 96 more it starts before 10:30 a.m.

* Monkey see, monkey do. Given its lax attitude toward counting students, closing under-capacity schools, and determining free-lunch eligibility, is it any wonder MCS is seen as a soft touch by vendors and contractors?

MCS is charged per day for each bus in operation by its provider, Laidlaw.

"Laidlaw appears to consistently schedule significant numbers of unnecessary buses," says the MGT report.

"Laidlaw has typically used outdated student data to develop its routing plans."

"Laidlaw takes three weeks to cut a bus route."

Architects and contractors also know a good deal when they see one. New school construction has budget overruns of, on average, 38 percent. Renovation and additions, on average, had cost overruns of 25 percent. And Memphis typically builds new schools that are 15 percent larger in square footage than the national average. MGT blames "either poor project planning, inadequate cost estimation procedures, availability of additional funds or intentional underestimate of project costs."

In other words, bus contractors and building contractors are gouging MCS. Where do you suppose they learned that?

* What is multitracking? The report is generally free of jargon except in a couple of very, very sensitive areas. In order to supposedly save $69 million -- which is 60 percent of the widely reported $114 million in savings recommended in the report -- "multitrack" a dozen schools.

In plain language, this means close some schools or scrap plans to build six new ones now on the boards and keep other schools open for longer hours and send more kids to them. This isn't the same as spreading the 180-day school calendar over 11 months instead of 10 months the way two "year-round" MCS schools do now.

Some of the savings would be offset by the cost of paying teachers to work longer or hiring more of them, but MGT doesn't go into this. And one of the proposed new schools it recommends scrapping is Binghamton Elementary, which was one of the reasons for putting the new Central Police Precinct headquarters and the Sam Cooper Boulevard extension where they are.

Likewise, "consolidation" of schools. In Memphis, consolidation has one overriding meaning -- a unified city and county. MGT uses consolidation as a euphemism for closing schools that have a lot of empty classrooms. The idea is political dynamite.

MGT identified a recommended enrollment for elementary (750), middle (900), and high schools (1,200). "MGT consultants were unable to identify comprehensive plans developed to address the issue of the large number of existing schools falling considerably below the desired enrollment levels."

What the report doesn't make clear is that there are schools with under 500 students that are near-capacity and others that are barely half full. For example, Rozelle Elementary, an exemplary school located in a historic building that used to be a library, has only 412 students. Should it be closed or consolidated?

The recommendation to "consolidate classes with small student enrollment" is also vague. A total of 2,279 classes were reported to have an enrollment of less than 15 students. But some of them are for hearing-impaired or special-education students, and others keep the school system's best and brightest students and teachers from leaving the public school system.

There is a simple starting point for at least determining which high schools are candidates for closing or, alternately, a $20 million infusion. Count the graduates. You can overstate system enrollment to get more state and county dollars. You can overstate the enrollment of individual schools to keep them from being closed. You can overstate free-lunch numbers to make the cafeteria show a profit. But you can't overstate graduates, which are the end products of the system. Last year, almost half of the graduates in the Class of 2002 came from just eight of the system's 28 high schools.

So count them.

* The band factor. Just once, wouldn't you like to see a consultant break the mold a little and answer an interesting question that has something to do with everyday life?

Here's mine: How is it that a "failing" school can have a marching band? Playing an instrument in a marching band takes brains, self-discipline, and teamwork. These are exactly the qualities that are supposedly lacking in failing schools. Maybe the principal and the band director should trade places.

* Full disclosure. Private foundations and donors paid for $500,000 worth of the MGT study. Thank you. Involvement beats apathy every time. But Partners in Public Education (PIPE), which helped pay for the study, are the folks who brought you former Superintendent Gerry House and the now-discredited New American Schools reform package.

"There was no overall impact on student achievement at the elementary level as a result of the reform models and achievement declined in middle and high schools," the report says.

Now that she's gone and the reform curriculum has been dismantled, it's become safe and even politically fashionable to knock House, who was named national Superintendent of the Year in 1999. But a few years ago, anyone who suggested that House was overrated, as this newspaper did, drew a prompt rebuke from PIPE and MCS communications.

There is also something grating and condescending about PIPE -- some of whose members would move to Nashville before putting their own children in a Memphis public school -- being singled out in the report as an exemplary organization that "has served to galvanize the community on issues of importance to education."

Now PIPE is threatening to withdraw future support unless the MGT recommendations are promptly adopted and implemented. That's not galvanizing the community. That's patronizing it.

* How's ServiceMaster doing? Quite well, according to the report. The company that privatized school maintenance and groundskeeping gets several commendations. ServiceMaster's $4.6 million, five-year contract, approved with House's recommendation in 1998, comes up for review this year. The company has its operations headquarters in Memphis.

Anecdotal evidence and casual observation of the inside and outside of city schools would seem to support the MGT findings. But is there more than meets the eye? Is the mold problem at East High School or the lead-based paint at Humes Middle School the real deal or a cynical play for a liability lawsuit jackpot? The study doesn't give any clues about these two stories that dominated news coverage for several days.

And ServiceMaster may have outsmarted itself when it sponsored the Superintendent of the Year Award won by House the year after the contract was awarded. In light of poor school performance, the sponsorship made the award look tawdry and tainted, which wasn't fair to House or the citizens of Memphis who got a false sense of security about the state of the public schools.

* Dress code. "Memphis City Schools is commended for successfully implementing a systemwide uniform policy."

Who'da thunk it? An institution that can make 118,000 students adhere to a dress code, however loose it might be at some schools, is pretty good, as anyone who has tried and failed to get their own children to change their wardrobe will probably agree. And MCS did it in one summer.

The sky did not fall. The First Amendment is intact. Fascism is not at the door. Free expression did not disappear. And city school students, in the opinion of many parents and students, look better and take less time to do so. Let's hope all the generous people and organizations that donated money and clothes after the initial surge of publicity ante up again next year.

* Sell your soul to Coke or Pepsi. "Memphis City Schools would stand to gain at least $2 million for the sponsorship fee and probably more," the report says.

"Memphis is somewhat unique as it does not have soft drink machines in the schools at this time," says MGT. "It appears that the only soft drink machines in any of Memphis City Schools are in the employee lounges."

For starters, that's not right. Many schools have drink machines that sell uncarbonated sports drinks and fruit drinks in the cafeteria. The caffeinated stuff is sold after school at a concession stand, often with booster club support. The booster club gets a few hundred bucks, and the ballfield gets a new backstop. It's a small but worthwhile way to bond with a school system that has lost way too much school spirit over the years.

A $2 million sponsorship would go straight to the central office where it might fall into a black hole. Kids sensitive to caffeine would get the shakes. And booster clubs would get an angry letter from some suit in Atlanta if they tried to sell Pepsi instead of Coke.

Curiously, MGT doesn't say a word about seeking a sponsorship from, say, McDonald's or Pizza Hut for food service. You wonder how many times the consultants ate in the school cafeterias.

* The $39.42 "solution." Making reporters, neighborhood groups, and ordinary citizens with way too much time on their hands pay $39.42 for a copy of the report is dumb. Apparently, nobody saw the irony of MCS being penny-wise while it is being blasted for being pound-foolish. By peddling copies of the report, MCS recoups maybe $1,000; then it proposes to spend $14.8 million to renovate heating and cooling systems at two under-capacity schools.

* Software and computers. Give a computer salesman an opportunity to give you a "free" computer and pretty soon you're buying software, accessories, and upgrades every year for the rest of your days.

"One area where site-based management often creates problems, and in fact becomes very costly, is in the area of technology acquisitions," says MGT.

Tech salesmen call directly on the school principal, who is often harried and technically overmatched. If you have children and want to conduct your own test, ask them what they think of the "educational" software at school.

And think twice before donating those cranky old computers to your neighborhood school. "Accepting such equipment," says MGT, "is almost always a bad idea."

It's about time somebody put up this red flag.

* Rozelle Elementary and optional schools. "There are some high-poverty schools in Memphis showing great strides in improvement despite socio-economic status and other factors which school staff have a tendency to blame for low performance," the report notes.

Rozelle Elementary School, where 86 percent of the 412 students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, is one of them. Students and staff have named it the Elite School. The admission standard -- a C average and good attendance and behavior -- is lower than some optional schools that require high standardized test scores. Rozelle apparently is doing some things that similar schools are not.

"All schools in Memphis should be aligning their instructional initiatives and school improvement efforts with the research on high-performing schools," the report says.

The puzzle is that Rozelle and some other high-performing schools don't have more students. Rozelle is actually slightly under-capacity. If the people who argue that poor children are "trapped in failing schools" are right, families should be beating down the doors of Rozelle and other optional schools. Yes, they require transportation and initiative, but so do charter schools, which are hailed as the "choice" alternative. But, with a few exceptions, they aren't.

"The student enrollment of optional programs is declining," says the report.

It is down, from 12,082 in 1998-99 to 11,263 in 2001-02. East High School and Craigmont High School have half the number of optional students they had four years ago. Over 90 percent of the public school students in Memphis do not choose to go to optional schools, which is one reason they are not a top priority of the school board.

* Violence and schools: "Memphis City Schools is commended for its well-trained and professional security officers," the report says. Applause, applause.

When Tim Russert, the host of Meet the Press, spoke at The Orpheum last week, he said, on average, 15 children are killed by gunfire in the United States every day. The audience, properly, was shocked.

Roughly one-fifth of the population of Memphis spends half of each year inside a public school. There hasn't been a fatal shooting for years. Principals, teachers, and security officers are doing something right. n

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