Days leading up to ASD decision in Nashville filled with meetings, concern

After a tumultuous experience this fall in Memphis, the Achievement School District is using a different strategy to choose which school it will take over in Nashville.

The timeline in Nashville is shorter:While in Memphis, meetings with teachers and parents started almost two months before ASD officials will make their final decisions, Nashvillians had less than three weeks, one of which was shortened by Thanksgiving.

The pool is smaller: The ASD will only intervene in one school in Nashville — either Madison Middle Prep or Neely’s Bend Middle Prep — versus at least nine in Memphis. In Nashville, there is only one possible charter operator.

And the outreach by ASD officials and educators from LEAD Public Schools, the charter organization that will take over the school, is more focused: Rather than targeting the entire community, they’re phoning and visiting fourth-grade parents, whose children would be the first ones to attend the school post-takeover.

For LEAD officials, the weeks since the ASD announced its impending takeover have been filled with meetings with elected officials and teachers, open houses, and phone calls, all part of an effort to educate the community about their schools.

But for many teachers and parents in Madison, where both middle schools are located, the weeks have been filled with concern and confusion. Why are Neely’s Bend and Madison being considered for state takeover, rather than lower performing schools which have been on the priority list for multiple years? What factors are being taken into account in the decision between the two schools? What happens next?

Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which contains the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The ASD aims to to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 25.

Timing of meetings questioned

“I think it would have been nice to have more notice,” said Jill Speering, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board member who represents both Neely’s Bend and Madison. Speering is concerned about Thursday, when both parent input meetings are at the same time. “Having both meetings the same night is a tactic to disregard the community voice,” she said.

ASD officials say the decision was strategic — but rather than hoping to stifle the community voice, they want to magnify parents’ voices.

When Speering raised her concerns to Chris Barbic, the ASD superintendent, he replied in an e-mail that, “Given the main intent [of the Dec. 4th meetings] —a focused conversation with parents who are zoned for these schools—holding both meetings at the same time creates no major conflicts.”

He said that he could try to extend one of the meetings, or videotape both, so Speering and the state representative for Madison, Bill Beck, could participate in both meetings.

He cited hotel costs as another reason to have both meetings the same night. Most of the ASD staff live in Memphis.

ASD chief operating officer Elliot Smalley said that a desire to have parents dominate the discussion over which school will be taken over — rather than teachers, as has been the case in Memphis — caused ASD officials  to rebrand the meetings as “parent meetings” rather than “community meetings,” which is what they called the equivalent meetings in Memphis.

Facebook posts, shared by both Speering and fellow board member Amy Frogge, as well as dozens of other Nashville residents, urged people from across Nashville to attend Thursday’s meetings, because “it is anticipated that the school which has the least amount of community support will be taken over by the Achievement School District.”

But Smalley said that isn’ttrue — it’s about the quality of feedback from parents, not the quantity. He said officials would be listening for what parents like about their current neighborhood school and want to maintain, and what they don’t like.

Decision will be ASD’s alone

Although Smalley said that parent feedback would be an important factor in the officials’ final decisions, he said that in the end, the fate of Madison and Neely’s Bend will be decided by ASD officials alone. In Memphis, the final decisions about takeovers also belong to ASD officials, but they first hear recommendations from the Achievement Advisory Council, a group of parent and community volunteers from the Memphis community.

Legally, the ASD could decide which schools to take over without input from anyone else. But ASD officials did narrow their list to Neely’s Bend and Madison as a direct consequence of feedback from Metro Nashville officials and the leaders of LEAD, Smalley said.

LEAD is the only charter operator authorized by the ASD to open a school in Nashville that is interested in doing so, and was only interested in transforming a middle school. That narrowed possible Nashville schools to the five middle school on the priority list.

The lowest performing of those schools, Bailey STEM Magnet Middle Prep, is in the midst of a several-year turnaround effort by Metro Schools, and so Metro Schools officials asked that the ASD leave it untouched. Another middle school, Jere Baxter Middle Prep, is under-enrolled, and the ASD wanted to takeover a fully enrolled school, to make the biggest impact possible.

A third middle school on the priority list, Joelton Middle Prep, achieved the highest possible growth rating by the state last year — a Level 5 — indiciating to ASD officials that it didn’t need to be taken over. That left Neely’s Bend and Madison, Smalley said.

But many teachers and parents in Madison  say they feel like those schools were on the right track, too.

The passing rates on last year's math TCAP for Lead's schools and Neely's Bend and Madison show that Lead schools outperformed  the traditional schools it might takeover — but not as much as some parents would like.
PHOTO: Tn.gov
The passing rates on last year’s math TCAP for Lead’s schools and Neely’s Bend and Madison show that Lead schools outperformed the traditional schools it might takeover — but not as much as some parents would like. (Click to enlarge.)

On Nov. 20, Christy King, a teacher at Madison, told Chalkbeat that the gains Madison made last year were not enough, but she felt they were an upward trend without state intervention. This year, the school system devoted $94,500 to turnaround programs at Madison, and more than $280,000 at Neely’s Bend.

Although their overall growth scores from the state were ones, the lowest level, both Madison and Neely’s Bend posted level 5 gains in numeracy skills in 2013-2014 — Neely’s Bend for growth in numeracy skills over two years, and Madison for growth in one year.

Brittney Garland is the mother of two students at Neely’s Bend Elementary, which feeds into Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, and an alumni of Neely’s Bend Middle Prep. She said she decided to move her family back to Madison specifically because of her positive experience at the schools in the area.

“These are good neighborhood schools,” she said.

A comparison of Lead Public Schools' 2013-2014  pass rates on the Reading TCAP, and Neely's Bend and Madison's.
A comparison of Lead Public Schools’ 2013-2014 pass rates on the Reading TCAP, and Neely’s Bend and Madison’s. (Click to enlarge.)

Because her oldest child is in the third grade, she did not receive phone calls or letters about the meetings next week.  She said that concerned her, since her son will also be affected if the ASD chooses Neely’s Bend. An active member of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, she said  few elementary school parents were aware of possible changes to their zoned middle school.

Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, said that he and other ASD and LEAD personnel thought long and hard about the scope of their outreach, and whether to reach out to parents of younger children. Ultimately, he said, they wanted to limit confusion, and avoid the perception that a decision had already made. Reynolds said that once a decision has been made, LEAD teachers and administrators will mail a letter to all elementary parents in the zone, and knock on every family’s door in the chosen school’s zone.

‘Why would we want to go backwards?’

But Reynolds said he still hopes that parents of younger students, like Garland, show up on Thursday.

“I encourage all families in the neighborhood zone to come out and share their views and learn about LEAD,” he said. “It’s important that we hear from families in the zone, because those are the people we’ll eventually serve.”

Garland said she was also concerned to learn that the average passing rates across the Achievement School District are lower than either Neely’s Bend or Madison.

“Why would we want to go backwards?” she said.

Reynolds said that the most relevant comparisons for parents in Madison to make are to the Nashville schools that Lead has already moved into, Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep.

“I think that’s a relevant comparison because those are zoned enrollment schools that serve all children and provide transportation to all kids, and are the model that we’re basing Madison or Neely’s Bend on,” he said.  “So that’s the real comparison, and our outcomes speak to themselves.”

Another LEAD middle school, Lead Academy, has been tapped by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for persistently low test scores. Unlike Cameron or Brick Church, the enrollment of that school is not limited to students who live in a residential zone. Reynolds said that it was also a relevant comparison for parents to make, though.

“It’s not the same type of school, but that’s our lowest performing campus, and our results are still significantly higher than Neely’s Bend or Madison,” he said.

The parent meetings are at 5:30 on Thursday at each school. Lead Public Schools are hosting open houses at Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10.

Clarification: This article was updated to reflect the role of the Achievement Advisory Council.

For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

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.