charter debate

NAACP call for charter pause puts Memphis in crosshairs of charter debate

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students, parents and education advocates gathered Friday at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to support #charterswork, a campaign against the proposed NAACP resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school growth.

The mother of nine children who have attended Memphis schools, Apryle Young-Lanier has witnessed a paradigm shift in the city’s education landscape, where the charter sector now consumes a fourth of the schools — and is growing.

Charter schools have offered her children a better education, she said, in a city that long neglected the deteriorating education of its black and poor students.

“They offer curriculum our children would otherwise not be exposed to,” she said, adding that charters have stepped in to help address neighborhood blight left by a trail of school closures. “The buildings were empty, not being used,” she said.

But that growth hasn’t come without pain, angst and outright anger in a city that also is home to one of the nation’s largest chapters of the NAACP, a leading group in the charge to stop charter expansion, as well as the state-run Achievement School District, which relies on charters for its school turnaround work.

The intersection puts Memphis at an interesting crossroads ahead of this weekend’s vote in Cincinnati by the NAACP’s national board to formalize its stance against charter school growth.

Memphis has become a battleground city in efforts to improve chronically low-performing schools, introducing charters as a tool for innovation beginning in 2003. Today, Shelby County Schools has 45 charters among its 186 schools, and the state-run district operates 28 charter schools as part of its turnaround model.

But their effectiveness, as well as the money they siphon off from traditional schools, remains a source of debate and sometimes outrage.

Last December, after a Vanderbilt University study said the Memphis district’s own school turnaround program has had more initial success than the state’s charter-reliant model, the school board for Shelby County Schools called for a moratorium on the ASD’s growth until it could show improvement. Soon after, the Memphis NAACP and black state legislators joined in the call.

“Our schools have been used as an educational experiment to test models of education theory,” NAACP leaders said in a statement, “while our students continue to struggle with the effects of years of debilitating poverty.”

At the same time, newly formed Memphis groups favoring school choice have steadily grown their ranks and heightened their voice in support of the ASD, charter schools, tuition vouchers and other changes they say can help put children of color on equal footing when it comes to getting a public education. Memphis is 63 percent black, and nearly 80 percent of the school system’s students live in poverty.

“Charter schools add much needed value to the fabric of our local educational landscape,” said Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, formerly a chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national school choice group. “When given the option, parents increasingly are choosing to enroll their children in public charter schools and in many neighborhoods, the demand for charter schools is far outpacing the supply.”

At right, Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of education advocacy group Memphis Lift prepares to take 150 parents to Cincinnati, where the NAACP will vote to formalize its stance against charter school growth.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sarah Carpenter (right), executive director of Memphis Lift, prepares to take 150 parents by bus to Cincinnati, site of the NAACP board’s vote this weekend.

Memphis Lift is another organization that sprang up in 2015 to organize black parents wanting school choice. On Friday, the group dispatched about 150 parents from Memphis and Nashville to Cincinnati ahead of Saturday’s vote. Memphis Lift, which also advocated for more funding for traditional schools this year, has ties to the wife of the ASD’s founding superintendent, Chris Barbic.

“We just want the NAACP to know that this is not what we want,” said Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director. “We want a moratorium on low-performing schools, period, not just charter schools.”

The national board’s resolution instructs local chapters to advocate against preferential funding or tax breaks for charter schools and for increased transparency and oversight. It also denounces “disproportionately high use of punitive and exclusionary discipline” in charter schools, documented waste of public funds in some, and “increased segregation rather than diverse integration.”

Local NAACP leaders have kept a low profile in discussions over the resolution, the latest volley in decades of sparring by black leaders over the role of charter schools in public education.

Madeline Taylor, the chapter’s long-time executive director, declined to comment to Chalkbeat, and multiple calls to other leaders were not answered. Grinter and Carpenter’s efforts to engage the NAACP about charters have also been met with silence.

Three Memphians sit on the NAACP’s 63-member national board: Jesse H. Turner Jr., the organization’s treasurer and the president of Tri-State Bank of Memphis; Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel of Memphis; and Bishop William Graves of Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

Nationally, charter schools have a disproportionately higher black student population, and many black leaders in the charter sector have urged the NAACP to reject the resolution.

Apryle Young-Lanier, center, with her two daughters. She spoke at a Campaign for School Equity rally at the National Civil Rights Museum on Friday in support of charter schools.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Apryle Young-Lanier (center) stands with her two daughters after speaking at a rally at the National Civil Rights Museum.

In Memphis on Friday, Young-Lanier was among about 65 students, parents and education advocates who rallied in favor of school choice during a morning rally at the National Civil Rights Museum, a monument to Memphis’ proud but painful history in the crusade for racial equality.

“I think they have this cookie-cutter image of charter schools,” she said later of local charter critics. “I can’t speak for other cities. But here in Memphis, they work really well.”

Many disagree with that statement, and Shelby County Schools is seeking to sort out the facts.

The district came out with its first annual charter school report over the summer, showing a mixed bag of performance as the district seeks to better manage the burgeoning group.

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

turnaround titan

Former Memphis principal will lead iZone, turnaround work for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Memphis Daily News
Former Memphis principal Antonio Burt, shown here with kindergarten teacher Britney Batson, helped lead Ford Road Elementary School to double-digit proficiency growth in 2013. Burt has returned to Memphis as assistant superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

A former turnaround principal is returning to Memphis as an assistant superintendent overseeing the Innovation Zone and other school turnaround work for Shelby County Schools, a spokeswoman confirmed Monday.

Antonio Burt started his new job last week under Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, for whom he worked previously as a principal in the iZone that she supervised. He’ll take the helm of the nationally known turnaround program and also provide oversight for the district’s other schools performing in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Those include some schools receiving new resources this year under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s new plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin has been chief of schools since her promotion from regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone.

The appointment is the first big hire under Griffin, who was promoted in January to supervise and support all of the district’s principals and teachers. It also continues a reshuffling of top academic positions since Griffin’s promotion and the departure of academics chief Heidi Ramirez a month later.

The district has no plans to replace Ramirez at this time, said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

Burt was an iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School until his departure in 2015 to work for the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that helps to recruit, train and place effective teachers in high-need districts. He came back to Memphis soon after to work for the state-run Achievement School District, though only for six months, according to his Linkedin page.

For the last year and a half, Burt was director of school transformation at Florida’s Pinellas County Schools, whose low-performing schools were analyzed in the Tampa Bay Times’ award-winning series Failure Factories. He had been hired to lead a new “transformation zone” which, similar to the iZone model, provides extra resources to struggling schools.

Burt began his education career in 2003 with the former Memphis City Schools and in 2012 took the helm at Ford Road, where he gained national attention for his turnaround work and became a champion of principal autonomy.

“We are very excited have have Dr. Burt back in our district serving our highest-need schools,” a district spokeswoman said. “We know that with his proven track record in school turnaround, we will continue to move toward our goal of providing high-quality school options for every child.”