Teachers organizing against ASD ‘want to do something radical’

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Teachers held signs protesting the ASD takeover during a community meeting at Denver Elementary

Dozens of teachers are organizing in an attempt to stop the state-run Achievement School District from taking over more underperforming schools, a state-led strategy they say is flawed and has largely failed to improve student achievement.

The Shelby County Teachers Coalition plans to protest at several upcoming meetings, at which the local school board will make crucial decisions about what to do next year with its lowest performing schools. Options include closing schools, expanding Shelby County Schools’ own efforts to turn around low-performing schools —  known as the iZone  — or pulling several hundred students from schools co-located with ASD schools.

Coalition leaders said they oppose ending school colocations because endless changes are disruptive to students and parents.

The group is operating outside the Memphis Shelby County Teachers Association. “They’re supposed to be doing what we’re doing,” one of the members said.

“We want to do something radical but we have to be strategic because they (the ASD) are strategic,” said one of the group’s founders. Several of the group’s members spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared losing their jobs.

This flyer was placed on attendees' cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.
This flyer was placed on attendees’ cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.

While parents and teachers have protested the takeover process in prior years, this year’s protests have been particularly hostile and well-organized, drawing media attention and politicians’ support.  At a series of meetings last week organized by the ASD, teachers passed out glossy pamphlets comparing their schools’ test scores to those of charter schools. They also fed questions to students and parents to ask charter organizations. When the charter officials attempted to answer the questions, teachers frequently shouted them down.

That especially frustrated ASD and charter officials who said the teachers were drowning out the parents’ voices as well.

It’s hard to forecast what sort of impact an organized effort against the ASD might have. The state district’s ability to take over and operate schools academically ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent, or to hand them over to independently-run charter organizations, is protected by state law.

But after years of mixed academic results in ASD schools, an SCS board members said recently they will push to change that law in this upcoming legislative session. It’s an effort the teacher coalition’s leaders said in interviews they will get behind.

Almost a full third of the district’s schools performed so poorly in recent years that they qualify to be taken over by the ASD. The ASD plans to take over several more schools next year.

ASD officials said that while they have had growing pains, they have also seen successes and their presence has spurred rapid improvement in the traditional public schools.  They’ve said this year’s “matching process” incorporated SCS officials’ input and considered a slew of other factors that they predicted will lead to future success.

“We have an incredibly high bar for authorizing our charters, and the only operators going through matching are those with proven results in Memphis or other cities, or new operators with proven results as educators,” said Elliot Smalley, the district’s chief of staff said in an email Wednesday.

The teacher coalition is made up of a core group of teachers from schools that have been part of the ASD takeover process since the state legislature created the district in 2012.  Over the years, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat, they have studied the law that created the ASD, the state’s charter laws, and the ASD’s existing schools’ academic records.  They have also spoken with several teachers, parents, and students who currently work at ASD schools or who have left ASD schools.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD's chief of staff
Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff

The group argues that dramatic budget cuts by Shelby County Schools in recent years have resulted in large class sizes, few extra-curricular activities and outdated textbooks. These cuts are especially acute at the district’s neediest schools, where a disproportionate number of students qualify for special education, are hungry, and whose parents lack the time or wherewithal to promote their children’s academic success.

To compare these schools’ test scores to suburban or rural schools with more stable environments and resources is simply unfair, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat.  Further, teachers said, for the state to intervene and hand the schools over to charter schools and make teachers reapply for their jobs at the schools causes more chaos in already chaotic environments.

The coalition leaders pointed out that several of the schools the ASD has taken directly over have performed worse than they were performing when they were operated by Shelby County Schools.  However, some of the schools the ASD has turned over to charters have performed much better.

“We appreciate the (teacher) coalition’s emphasis on results—that’s the essence of this work, ensuring students learn and succeed,” the ASD’s Smalley said.  “It’s far too early to draw major conclusions about our results—we’ve only run schools for two years and two-thirds of our schools were in just their first year last year—but if you look at our first neighborhood charter schools matched with neighborhood priority schools (two years of data), they’re showing real signs of promise, and they’re doing considerably better than the schools under consideration for matching.”

The group said this year’s takeover process is especially confusing. Teachers said when two charter organizations pulled out of the process last week because of capacity concerns, it left the school communities with which they were going to be matched with confused, demoralized, and uncertain about their future. But coalition members said the pullout “energized” the activists.

The ASD plans to announce which schools it will take over in the beginning of December.

Several dozen teachers have expressed interest in joining the group in recent days and the founders say they plan to eventually reach out to parents and community activists, too.  They’re keeping other plans under wraps right now.

The ASD, meanwhile, is moving forward with its plans to engage community members and parents.

“So much of this conversation is right—people asking great questions, voicing support for their schools, and expressing deep emotions about education, schools, and community,” ASD superintendent Chris Barbic said in an e-mail to his community Monday. “We don’t believe authentic community engagement is a neat and tidy process.  Not if it’s done right.  It’s totally understandable that last week’s meetings spurred people’s emotions and generated good, hard questions. We commit to standing with communities and, together with our operators, answering these questions and listening to parents’ input.”


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.