Tennessee

Community advisory board recommends charters for newest ASD schools

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.

Some matches were determined before last night: Frayser Community Schools will run Frayser High, and Gestalt will run Wooddale Middle School. 

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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.