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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.