Charter advocates push for tweaks to ASD enrollment eligibility

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Charter school advocates want Tennessee’s legislature to remove restrictions on which students can attend schools run by the state-run Achievement School District.

Schools being run by the ASD, which is tasked with improving the performance of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, can currently only enroll students who are zoned to schools that are also eligible for the ASD. Advocates are pushing for a change in the law that would allow students who are not zoned to ASD-eligible schools to attend state-run schools if they choose, according to Greg Thompson, the chief executive officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center

Thompson said that the change would not go against the ASD’s mission to improve the lowest-performing schools in the state. He said that students zoned to the lowest-performing schools would still be prioritized. 

In an email, Thompson wrote:   

Right now, there are ASD charters that are under-enrolled because there are not enough ASD students (i.e. the district schools being converted by charter operators have been under-enrolled pre-charter conversion and it is difficult from a transportation standpoint to draw in kids from around the city that are ASD-zoned).  The result is that a number of ASD charters have openings, but have to turn away families that are close to the school (in many cases, those students may not be ASD-zoned, but are still attending a very low performing school).

This restriction on ASD enrollment is unusual: Most of the schools in the ASD are run by charter management organizations, and most charter schools in the state of Tennessee are able to enroll any student who wishes to apply. Any student in Shelby County Schools can enroll in a charter school authorized by the Shelby County school board, for instance.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat in December that the requirement that the ASD’s schools remain “neighborhood schools” gave charter operators a shot to disprove allegations that they achieve good results by “creaming” students, or somehow enrolling students who are “easier to educate” than those who remain in regular public schools.

But Thompson said a change in the law would still allow the ASD to create better schools for students in the lowest-performing schools. From Thompson’s email:

The spirit of this is to continue prioritizing ASD zoned students and to ensure every student who is ASD – zoned has a spot in the charter school of his/her choice — but not let seats go unfilled (which is a waste of resources and is denying good education options to families who are zoned to low performing schools (maybe just not zoned to schools low enough to make it in the bottom 5%).

In a profile of the ASD released last spring, Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, wrote that the neighborhood-schools requirement “waters down one of the main tenets of chartering, which is that parents should be able to choose any school in the jurisdiction that is right for their child.”

Megan Quaile, who is preparing to open a new Green Dot public charter school in Fairley High School as part of the ASD, said “If you live in Memphis and want to go to the school, I don’t know why we’d not allow you.”

The number of school choice options within Shelby County has been growing in recent years. More than 10 percent of public school students in Shelby County now attend public charter schools rather than public schools run directly by the Shelby County school system.

The ASD is planning to expand the number of schools it runs over the next few years. This shift in enrollment regulations would also allow each individual school to potentially expand its enrollment, if nearby parents were interested in attending. That would likely affect the number of students attending  Shelby County Schools, which is currently planning to close 13 schools in the coming year, including three that are in the process of being taken over by the ASD, due primarily to under-enrollment.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede