Thursday, August 18, 2005

CITY BEAT

Will Memphis’s 30-year optional-school experiment run off the rails? PLUS: Luttrell letter

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2005 at 4:00 AM

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

Too many students, too much of the limelight, and now too much controversy at White Station High School are raising questions about the Memphis City Schools vaunted optional schools program, which is 30 years old this year.

Thanks to population growth in East Memphis, high rankings in high school surveys by Newsweek and USA Today, Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, and the well-established optional program that attracts top students from all over the city, enrollment has exploded to over 2,300 at White Station. The school, which has not had a major capital improvement in over 30 years, was built for about 1,500 students.

Overcrowding isn’t the only problem.

“Everything is not perfect at White Station,” said Wanda Halbert, president of the Memphis Board of Education and parent of a WSHS student.

Several parents and former students came to a meeting with Halbert and Superintendent Carol Johnson at the school last week. Grievances included personnel changes and a reprimand given to WSHS principal Wanda Winette. Some of the parents saw Halbert as the hidden hand behind both moves, but she said she is misunderstood.

“A lot of people there don’t like me,” she said. “They’ve been told things about me but they don’t know me.”

Halbert did not attend Monday’s school board meeting where WSHS parents again voiced their complaints. But the concerns she has about AP courses and the school-within-a school grouping of optional and “traditional” students are shared by other board members and likely to outlast any personality conflicts.

The optional program and parent choice have created an academic powerhouse at WSHS but depleted the talent pool at other city schools. The Class of 2005 was offered $17 million in college scholarships and boasted more than 20 National Merit Scholars. Four current or recently retired members of the school board have had children or siblings at the school. WSHS offered 18 AP classes last year; many city schools offered one or none. A WSHS graduate who spoke at the board meeting will enter Vanderbilt with 21 credits.

White Station (49 percent white, 43 percent black, 8 percent other) has done this with a student body that is much more racially diverse than most public or private schools. At the Bridges Kickoff Classic this weekend, White Station’s integrated football team will be easy to recognize because the other schools will be almost all-black or all-white.

“It’s a better school than it was when I went there,” said Dr. Felix Caldwell, WSHS Class of 1972. He has sent three daughters to WSHS, but told board members Monday that parents and teachers are suffering from low morale. In a competitive, ratings-driven environment, a diploma from White Station, bolstered with AP classes and membership in the National Honor Society, can be worth thousands of dollars in scholarships at prestigious colleges where tuition often exceeds $20,000 a year. To Halbert, one of the less-than-perfect things about WSHS and other high schools is the process by which students get into AP classes and the availability of such classes.

“You’ve got to let every kid go through the same process,” she said. “I know they don’t. Some are tested and some are not.”

And while she does not want to lower standards, Halbert is concerned that “traditional” students in the school system rarely get into the National Honor Society.

Optional Schools director Linda Sklar said 20 MCS high schools offered at least one AP course last year. A student must score at least a 3 on a 1-5 scale to earn college credit. The College Board, which administers the AP program nationwide, is tightening standards.

“You can’t place kids in AP who have not had adequate preparation,” Sklar said..

As a parent of two recent WSHS graduates, I think Halbert and Sklar both have a point. A system with 118,000 students has unwritten rules for getting ahead and is not always fair. A decade ago, it was easier for a Goth to get into Chi Omega at Ole Miss than for an overworked African-American single mom to camp out at the school board to get her kid into the best optional school. Optional schools were a partial solution to the unsolvable problem of white flight. It took years to fine-tune a program that may yet run off the rails.

“The way to keep it on the rails is to keep it fair,” says board member Jeff Warren.

The long-range solution is to create more White Stations. To that end, Central High School alumnus and former school board member Dr. Tom Stern is spearheading a drive to raise $3.5 million in private donations for Central. That’s a fine start.

Letter from Sheriff Mark Luttrell

(Read previous "City Beat" for reference.)

August 15, 2005

Mr. John Branston
Memphis Flyer
460 Tennessee Street
Memphis, TN 38103

Dear Mr. Branston:

After publication of the Flyer story regarding Bailiff’s time spent in courtrooms produced such opposition from a number of Judges, the Internal Audit Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office conducted an audit of the system producing the reports. The audit revealed that the data being reported was seriously flawed and was not an accurate representation of the bailiffs’ courtroom activity.

Audit Bureau personnel attempted to correct the reports for the six months period depicted in the Flyer article; however, the absence of critical data made it impossible to accurately reconstruct the reports to show accurate information. A sampling of the auditors’ findings includes:

1) Collected June time sheets for all Civil Courts indicate that logs have been lost, misplaced or were never completed and returned to the court office. An examination of Civil Courts Division records for the month of June indicates that only one court, General Sessions Division IV, had a complete set of logs for the month of June (22 logs out of 22 court days).

2) Collected June time sheets for Criminal Courts indicate that logs have been mislabeled or misidentified by the reporting deputies. Division 8 was in session for 12 days and had 19 days of log sheets.

3) Several deputies consistently complete log sheets and do not identify the courts to which they were assigned.

4) A standard for identifying the type of court does not exist. The identifier for Civil Courts listed on the logs ranges from GS (General Sessions) to CC (Criminal Court) to GC (General Sessions Criminal Court), etc;.

5) The archived logs are not secured or kept in sequential order. A securable filing system should be established with a agreed upon time frame for archival purposes

6)There is no indication that the logs are reviewed by supervisors at the end of the day. Time sheets should be returned to officers to correct errors.

7) Court room deputies should be able to account for a minimum of 480 minutes. Many of the logs fall below that threshold.

8) Temporarily assigned officers and overtime officers do not always turn in time sheets.

9) If an officer works more than one court, data entry clerks automatically use the reassigned category as the default listing. By placing the data into the reassigned category the tabulated time for the courts becomes incorrect.

10) Audits should be performed twice a year, at a minimum. Monthly reports should be the responsibility of the courts.

Based on the findings of the Audit Bureau, I determined that correcting existing reports would not be feasible and that any revised reporting would require an inordinate amount of “estimation” to substitute for missing data. Accordingly, revised reports would serve no real purpose and the decision was made to concentrate all efforts to correcting the flawed system and ensure that future reports would be accurate.

Top staff in the Courts Division have already developed policies and procedures to ensure that time is accurately captured and entered into the computer system with appropriate checks and balances to prevent a recurrence of the flawed data situation existing today. The audit Bureau will conduct regular audits of the process and the data to ensure compliance with the policies and procedures and the integrity of the data reported.


Sincerely,

Mark H. Luttrell, Jr.
Sheriff of Shelby County

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