Tennessee

Exclusive: Green Dot Public Schools pulls out of Raleigh-Egypt ASD takeover

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 [email protected] 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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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.