A community advisory group for the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) recommended Monday which charter school operators should take over four of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
The group’s recommendations, based on discussions with the charter schools and input from parents and students, will help determine the ASD administration’s plans for seven Memphis schools, set to be announced this Thursday.
At stake is the future of those schools, all ranked in the bottom five percent of the state academically and situated in high-poverty, predominantly black neighborhoods. For years, they have been run by Memphis and Shelby County Schools, but a 2010 law allows state officials to remove the schools from the district, replace their leadership and staff, and let the new leaders set their budgets and curricula in hopes of improving their performance. Most of the schools in the ASD will be run by charter schools operators, which are publicly funded but operated independently.
The ASD is being closely watched by states around the country interested in turning around low-performing schools. But some community members and teachers have described its intervention as invasive, disruptive and ineffective.
The AAC recommended that Carver High School be run by Green Dot, Springhill Elementary be matched with Promise Academy, Coleman Elementary be matched with Aspire, Westwood be matched with Freedom Prep and Fairley High School not be matched with a charter operator.
The AAC’s recommendations are not final. The ASD will announce final pairings this coming Thursday.
“We realized there’s a need to get authentic input about decisions about which charter partner would turn around which school,” said Margo Roen, the new schools director for the state-run district. She said the process was inspired by community engagement practices in New Orleans and Denver.
The AAC’s recommendations outline why each “match” was made, but also lay out potential concerns for each site, including declining enrollment at Carver and lack of transportation options for Springhill students.
“The needs of each school are different,” said Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff. “And operators have different preferences.”
Two schools, Denver and South Side, were on the list at the outset of the process but not matched to any operator. Artesian Community Schools, which had been in conversations to run South Side, will not run a school in the 2014-15 school year.
“It’s about making the right decision, no matter what people may have invested,” Smalley said.
The all-volunteer AAC, whose members serve six-month terms, was designed to communicate community concerns to the ASD, to explain ASD policies to parents and community members, and to recommend which school should be run by whom.
“We’re a liaison between the community, charter school, and neighborhood,” said member Omari Faulkner. “Once it’s announced that a school will be taken over, we want to hear, what do they feel and how are they going through the process.”
This is the ASD’s second year running schools. In September, nine schools were put on a shortlist for take-over. The district and the AAC ran an informational fair and hosted a series of community meetings and conversations over the course of the fall. Parents had the opportunity to learn about the charter operators’ curriculum, extracurricular activities and philosophies.
The matching process surfaced concerns about schools’ futures even as it brought the schools a step closer to being under the auspices of the ASD.
A parent at South Side Middle said she feared the ASD was out to privatize schools and that beloved teachers would lose jobs. Many of the district’s teachers and top officials come to Memphis from elsewhere in the country.
A parent from Wooddale Middle School submitted a petition to the Shelby County School Board last month saying she and some 600 other parents did not want their school to be taken over by the state.
“For a lot of educators, it can come as a shock,” Faulkner said. “They’re often wary of the takeover model. Sometimes that can trickle down to students, parents, community leaders. This is a very new process. We don’t work for the ASD, but we’re here to provide that bridge when they have a question.”
At Fairley, community members disputed the test scores that landed the school on the state priority list in the first place, said Katrice Peterson, a member of the AAC. The school’s new strategic plan and principal were cited as reasons to not match it with any charter schools this year.
At Carver, “the first thoughts were, do we keep the name, do we keep the traditions, our mascots? Will we still be Carver?” said Mitchell Saddler, a member of the AAC. The school’s low enrollment means it might be closed by Shelby County Schools if it is not taken over by the ASD.
Megan Quaile, the vice president of expansion for Green Dot, a California-based charter operator planning to open its first school in Memphis, said, “I like the concept of a lot of engaging the community and having them really understand us and us understand them before any final decisions are made.”
Both AAC members and charter operators complained that they weren’t allowed into the schools to get a better idea of what a typical school day is like.
A spokesperson for Shelby County Schools didn’t respond to questions about the members’ access to the schools.
The AAC held many of their meetings at nearby community centers and churches.
AAC member Saddler said navigating conversations with those currently in schools, whose jobs will be affected by the change, was tricky. As of last week, he had not discussed the plans for Carver’s future with its current principal: “I have no idea how to start the conversation.”
Representatives from the affected schools declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.
The ASD runs 15 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville, but plans to run more than 50. Its goal is to improve schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state until they are in the top 25 percent.
Of the 83 schools in Tennessee eligible for takeover, 69 were in Memphis.
Correction: The article originally misstated the name of Wooddale Middle School.