Green Dot Public Schools, a nationally-known charter school network, has backed out of an agreement with Tennessee’s Achievement School District to take over Memphis’ academically-troubled Raleigh-Egypt High School next year, Chalkbeat learned Thursday.

The decision follows a month of raucous protests from students, parents, and teachers, and strong pushback from the city’s superintendent, who said the intervention was unnecessary and disruptive.

Green Dot officials said Thursday that a lack of community buy-in would hurt the success at the school, where just one of the school’s 748 students passed the English End of Course exam last year.

“We don’t want to create a hostile environment where kids are in the middle of this,” said Megan Quaile, the executive director of Tennessee’ s Green Dot Public Schools.  “They’ve asked us to give them some time and we’re going to honor their request.”

State law allows the ASD to take over Tennessee’s worst-performing schools and directly run them or hand them over to charter schools.

Green Dot is the third operator this fall to pull out of an agreement with the ASD to take over struggling Memphis schools. Two other networks  – KIPP and Freedom Prep–pulled out of the process last month, citing concerns about their own capacity to take on more schools.

Today’s development delivers another blow to the ASD’s “matching” process. Under that process, the ASD coordinates get-to-know-you meetings and informational events between charter schools and some of the lowest performing schools in the state to help the ASD and a board of community members decide how and whether to intervene in particular schools.

Shelby County Schools board members, parents, and teachers have described the matching process as confusing, demoralizing and destructive to schools. They have also pointed out that while some schools’ test scores improved after state intervention, others have dipped, leading some board members and politicians to call for a moratorium on the ASD’s expansion.

The ASD has said the matching process is meant to build community buy-in to help schools reach the ASD’s  stated goal of taking the bottom 5 percent of schools and catapulting them into the state’s top 25 percent of schools in five years. This year’s blips have caused district officials concern but they still plan to move forward with the matching process.

“The expectation was that everybody was ready to move forward,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said Thursday.  “If we felt like they weren’t ready, then we wouldn’t have had them involved in this process.  We’re never going to force an operator to do something that they don’t want to do.”

“We’re going to go back and do an autopsy once we’re done with all this,” Barbic said. “What are some things we can do to minimize this from happening again. We want kids in priority schools to have the best shot possible at a good education.”

Just six of the 12 Memphis schools named by the ASD last month as takeover candidates are still in the takeover mix. And Green Dot still plans to take over Wooddale Middle School.  The ASD currently runs 22 schools.

When the ASD announced last month that it would take over Raleigh-Egypt High School, a sports powerhouse situated in a blue-collar neighborhood in North Memphis, politicians, board members, alumni, and community activists objected. They expressed hope that the school’s new principal, plucked from Bolton High School, would turn the school around without ASD intervention.

Raleigh Egypt principal James "Bo" Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Raleigh Egypt principal James “Bo” Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.

Principal James “Bo” Griffin publicly promoted his efforts to sweep the hallways of fights, expel the school’s trouble makers and develop a three-year academic plan with Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and Egypt Elementary that included tutoring and professional development. Egypt Elementary made some of the largest academic gains in the state this year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at a board meeting last month that he specifically asked the ASD not to take over Raleigh-Egypt High School because of the “synergy” between the high school middle school and elementary school campus.

But the ASD said Raleigh-Egypt was the only high school in the state to fall into a stringent set of takeover criteria agreed upon with Shelby County Schools.

Some schools on this year’s ASD list were only provisionally tabbed for takeover. But Raleigh-Egypt was a “direct placement” school, meaning the ASD had definitively decided to turn over the school to  Green Dot, a charter management organization that has gained national attention for turning around several tough high schools in its home state of California.

Being taken over by the ASD would interrupt the sorts of gains the school has made this year, principal Griffin said.

“I don’t really understand it as a first-year principal,” Griffin said about the takeover process. “I know the governor believes in it but I still believe it’s the people, not the programs that make a difference in schools. If there were one program, we’d all be doing it.”

Griffin also took issue with Green Dot being an out-of-state charter network, saying its staff wouldn’t understand the particular challenges of the Raleigh neighborhood, including gang violence and intense poverty.

Last year, Green Dot took over Memphis’ Fairley High School and immediately set up a task force made up of parents, teachers and community members to make decisions at the school about budget and extra-curricular activities. Despite its costs, Green Dot Schools officials retained the school’s famous high-stepping marching band and added some sports programs back that had been dormant for several years.

That sort of community buy-in is crucial to getting students to show up to school and engaged in the classroom, ultimately boosting test scores, Green Dot’s Quaile said.

Raleigh-Egypt High School's test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.
Raleigh-Egypt High School’s test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.

But after meeting with several parents and staff members at Raleigh-Egypt High School, Quaile decided she’d have a much harder time creating that sort of culture there.

ASD officials said Thursday they plan to meet with Hopson in the coming weeks to formulate a smoother takeover process, in which community members are better informed about upcoming decisions, and charter schools aren’t pulling out.

Principal Griffin said he plans to have a faculty meeting Thursday afternoon to let teachers know about the decision and prepare for a Thanksgiving day food drive for students Friday. The local Krogers has donated 750 baskets of food Raleigh-Egypt families.

“I think this is an opportunity to know where we’re at now but not knowing where we’re going to be next year, this should be fuel for us to work even harder to hit our numbers,” Griffin said.

In a draft of a letter addressed to community members and obtained by Chalkbeat, Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said the school could potentially be placed in the Shelby County’s iZone, a district-led effort similar to the ASD’s, where staff are also required to reapply to their jobs.

“If Raleigh-Egypt doesn’t make significant progress this year, it will be eligible to match with Green Dot…in the 2016-17 school year,” Anderson said.

The ASD is expected to announce its decisions for the remaining schools on the takeover list on Dec. 12.

 For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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