ASD

Lawsuit alleges Achievement School District favored Barbic’s schools over competitors’

A lawsuit filed late last month alleges that the state-run Achievement School District’s process for evaluating charter school applications in 2013 was not objective, and that YES Prep, the charter organization founded by ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, received a leg up in its application.

Rodney O. Ursery and Clara Denise West are suing state education commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Tennessee Education Department, Barbic, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and YES Prep Public Schools in Shelby County’s chancery court for a slate of charges including civil conspiracy and unfair business practices.

The ASD and YES Prep both dispute the claims. “What I can tell you is the ASD’s authorization process has the same high bar for all applicants,” Elliot Smalley, a spokesman for the ASD, wrote in an email. “The process is objective, independent, and rigorous, with the same steps and criteria clearly articulated to all applicants. We make no exceptions.”

West and Ursery had applied to open a charter school, which would have been called Global Generation Charter School, as part of the ASD in 2014-15. Their application was denied. They have not reapplied to open their school through either the ASD or Shelby County Schools.

In an interview, West said that her organization’s application was as qualified as others that had been approved. “When we went through the application process, it was like it was rigged. If you didn’t have part of the Tennessee Charter Incubator or Teach For America, if you weren’t affiliated with YES Prep or KIPP or a friend of a friend you weren’t getting in,” she said.

In a press release announcing the suit, Ursery said, “For far too long, it has been recognized and stated in the court of public opinion that Huffman and Barbic have utterly abused the power of their positions when it comes to regulating the Tennessee’s school system. Now, I’m confident that their reign of terror, which has been plagued with conspiracies among crooks and cronies, will finally be revealed in a court of law, that is, if justice prevails.”

The suit contends that the ASD approved YES Prep to open schools in 2015-16 during a process that had been publicly advertised for schools opening in 2014-15.

The release says that “Barbic, founder and former Chief Executive Officer of YES Prep, illegally authorized YES Prep to seize nearly 6,000 elementary school students in Memphis, TN.”

Houston-based YES Prep has not yet opened any schools in Tennessee. It plans to open two middle schools—not elementary schools—next year.

The superintendent of YES Prep’s Memphis schools, Bill Durbin, disputed the allegations in an e-mail:

“YES Prep Public Schools believes there is no merit to the lawsuit filed against our organization regarding our charter with the ASD. We are one of the oldest not for profit charter management organizations in the nation with a 16 year track record of improving educational outcomes in underserved communities. We won the inaugural Broad Prize in 2012 and were named the “most outstanding” charter school system in the nation. We were vetted through a rigorous selection process in 2013 by the ASD that included an independent evaluator and have no reason to believe we were given priority in the process. We take expansion to a new region very seriously and are humbled to have the opportunity to begin serving Memphis families starting in 2015.”

The suit also contests NACSA’s role in the charter approval process and alleges that the state’s education department gave the ASD a “carte blanche” to deny or approve some applicants. West and Ursery contend that they had no process by which to appeal the charter denial.

The state’s legislature voted last spring to create a state appeal board for charter operators whose applications are rejected.

A spokeswoman for Tennessee’s education department said the department had not had a chance to review the pending legislation. The ASD’s Smalley said in an email that the lawsuit did not appear to have been served as of Tuesday afternoon.

The text of the lawsuit is below.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.