Hundreds of community members protest state takeover, charters

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Hundreds of fired-up teachers, parents, and community members at Raleigh Egypt High and American Way Middle schools shouted down state education and charter officials Monday night with chants and boos at two meetings intended to introduce charter school operators to the school communities they might absorb next year.

Members of the crowd at Raleigh Egypt said attempts at taking over schools was not only ineffective and destructive, but amounted to a scheme to make money off children, a charge officials flatly denied.

It was yet another flashpoint in what has become almost a ritual every fall in Memphis: tense face-to-face confrontations between community members and charter officials over the fate of chronically underperforming traditional public schools.

“I’m with you,” Stephanie Love, a Shelby County Schools board member who has children that attend schools that have been taken over by the state, told the Raleigh Egypt crowd. “I will fight for our children. Our children will not be used as another failed experiment.”

According to law, the state’s Achievement School District can take control of schools that fall in the academic bottom five percent of Tennessee public schools, and hand them over to privately-run charter operators. The charters can replace the staff, change the school’s name, and make dramatic change to curriculum and discipline proceedings.

Almost a full third of Memphis’ schools are eligible to be taken over within the next three years. This year, the ASD has promised to hand over nine schools to one of  seven charters. Two of those schools, South Side Middle and A.B. Hill Elementary, were taken off the list Monday when Freedom Prep and KIPP, decided against participating in the process because of capacity concerns. For many activists, the news only caused more confusion, distrust, and hope that their school could be next to be taken off the list.

ASD officials say they will pair Raleigh Egypt High School with Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network founded in California and will consider pairing American Way Middle with Yes Prep, a charter network based in Houston.

Last year, just over half of the students at Raleigh High School graduated and barely a fifth of students at American Way Middle School met basic state English standards.

Across the city, ministers, teachers, parents students and alumni have spent the past week pulling school data to compare to charter schools, designing elaborate signs, launching social media campaigns, and signing petitions.

Conspiracy theories have abounded about why the ASD is taking over mostly black and poor schools in Memphis and what charter schools’ true motivations are.  Several community leaders and educators have questioned why the ASD is allowed to expand when its results to date have been mixed.

The community meetings, which will take place throughout this week, are an attempt by the ASD, which has no locally-elected board, to incorporate community voice when it makes final decisions in December about which schools the district will take over, and which charter networks will receive which schools.  For charter officials, these meetings are a chance to convince as many parents and teachers as possible to return next year.

At American way Monday night, ASD officials served pizza and soda and tried to hold small-group sessions for the first hour before conducting a town hall style  meeting.

When Yes Prep officials suggested the group split into two groups to continue the discussion, attendees protested, demanding the group stick together.

Students chanted “No Prep! No Prep!”  while shaking signs that read “10 years and on, keep our name strong” and “We’re not going down without a fight.”

Seventh-grader Kaiya Newsome wanted to know why the school couldn’t receive a second chance.

Her mother, Keiva Newsome, had many questions about the takeover process since it would mean her daughter would attend a different school next year.

“I’m satisfied with the education she’s received here,” Newsome said.  “Of course anything can be improved, but they’ve given her extra help, they’re wonderful and our principal checks on her students.”

“The community meetings are an important part of the process and we’re going to make every second available to hear every concern over the next six weeks,” said Bill Durbin who is leading up Yes Prep’s expansion in Memphis.

Tajuana G. Cheshier contributed reporting to this story.

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.