Tennessee

ASD school takeover process a ‘scam,’ say parents who worked with state-run district

PHOTO: Jim Webber/Commercial Appeal
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School student Jonisha Simms (center) listens as parents and members of the school's neighborhood advisory council protest in December in front of the Shelby County Schools' administration building over the charter matching process established by the Achievement School District.

The Achievement School District’s new school takeover process, heralded by state officials as a way to ensure transparency and parental input about what’s best for Memphis students, came under attack Monday from involved parents who called the process a “scam” based on “biased” data.

As discrepancies surfaced to the ASD’s public reports about the community’s input, some members of the district’s much-touted neighborhood advisory councils held a news conference charging that the process was rigged in favor of pairing struggling schools with charter operators.

Also, a review of NAC rubric and scoring data obtained by the Tennessee Education Report found that many negative reviews of the proposed charter operators were redacted because of “lack of evidence,” making “the matching process a foregone conclusion.”

“This essentially disenfranchises the members of the community to be a real and authentic part of the matching process,” wrote Ezra Howard, a regular columnist for the online education blog.

When unveiling its new community engagement process during the summer, ASD officials said the approach would bring more transparency to its school turnaround work, which has been wrought with community pushback every year since the state-run district took control of its first six schools in Memphis in 2012.

As their efforts at community consensus-building appeared to unravel on Monday, ASD leaders stuck by the process.

“We did our best to run a fair, transparent process and we believe we achieved that,” the ASD said in a statement. “We are grateful to the parents, students, teachers, counselors and community members who spent the better part of two months learning about and evaluating the potential fit of operators that applied to serve these Priority schools.”

LaToya Robinson, a parent who served on one neighborhood advisory council (NAC), was among three NAC members who organized the press conference outside of Shelby County Schools Board of Education building. The group charged that the ASD’s commitment to community involvement was only an attempt to “appease the community,” paving the way for the district’s decision this month to take control of four more schools.

“They took our schools. We did not give [them] away,” one angry parent said.

Robinson was more moderate in her comments later to Chalkbeat, welcoming the ASD’s presence and noting that “before the ASD came, no one cared about (Shelby County Schools).” However, she wishes that ASD officials had been more transparent about how NAC feedback would be incorporated in their final decisions, which ultimately were made by the district’s six-member leadership team.

This year’s takeovers marked a significant shift in the ASD’s approach to state intervention and the pairing of low-performing schools with charter operators. Rather than making a unilateral decision, as they had the previous three years, district officials announced proposed takeovers in September, received applications from interested charter operators in October, and involved panels of parents and community members in scoring the applicants in November.

ASD officials said charter operators for four of five schools met the standards for a match by earning 50 percent or more of the available points from NAC assessments. However, according to the rubrics filled out by NAC members, most operators did not satisfy standards necessary to manage the schools for which they applied.

ASD leaders said the scoring was based on NAC feedback that was “evidence-based.”

Robinson said she had an open mind when she decided to get involved in the ASD matching process. She was chosen to serve on an NAC that would help determine the future of Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools. The mother of two 6-year-old children, she pored over applications by Aspire and Green Dot, two charter networks seeking to manage three Shelby County schools. She loved Aspire, but was unimpressed with Green Dot after touring Wooddale Middle, one of the Los Angeles-based operator’s other Memphis schools.

Detailing her concerns on the ASD’s rubric, she was dismayed after learning later that much of the advisory council’s feedback had been discounted because ASD officials said it was based more on opinion than on evidence. Ultimately, the ASD gave the green light to Green Dot to operate two schools but rejected Aspire’s application to manage one school.

“The process was great,” Robinson said. “But then it was like they found any way they could to make (our rubrics) show what they wanted it to show.”

For Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, all but one council member wrote that Scholar Academies (SA) did not meet standards without reservations on any of the rubric’s eight criteria. The members, whose names were redacted, cited the operator’s lack of understanding of the neighborhood, lack of community outreach, and safety concerns among reasons against a match at this time with the Philadelphia-based charter organization.

“Raleigh Egypt Middle Schools is in a gang-infested neighborhood,” wrote one member. “Many of the students, their family, and friends are in gangs. SA has not talked about procedures for dealing with this issue.”

Another wrote: “There is evidence that Scholar Academies has attempted to involve the school community in the school transformation process before the school conversion but their strategies were ineffective in reaching the broader community as evident by engagement sessions sign-in sheets and community’s response to surveys distributed by SA. There is no evidence that partnerships with organizations in the community have been formed.”

The ASD’s Dec. 11 announcement that it would convert four more Memphis schools into charters came on the heels of a Vanderbilt study suggesting that the ASD has been less effective at turning around struggling Memphis schools than the local district has through its Innovation Zone.

The study intensified community furor against the state-run district and prompted Shelby County’s school board to pursue a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows “consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.” However, Tennessee Department of Education officials said the local district does not have authority to issue a moratorium, since state law gives the ASD authority to take control of eligible low-performing schools to implement strategies designed to turn them around.

In a statement Monday, department spokeswoman Ashley Ball said:  “It’s important to remember that the matching process wasn’t designed to determine if these schools needed an intervention; these schools have been on the Priority list since 2012. The matching process was designed to find the right intervention for these schools and these communities. As improvements to the process are identified, the department will proactively make adjustments.”

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.