Meetings held by the Achievement School District at two middle schools in Madison Thursday evening  were supposed to be a forum for parents to tell district officials what they wanted to see in a middle school, and for the ASD to explain what kind of changes a state takeover of one of the struggling schools would bring.

Instead, the meetings were high on emotion and low on specifics, leaving parents, elected officials, teachers, and ASD officials alike frustrated.

Parents and teachers in the northeastern Nashville community learned in late November that one of its two middle schools, Madison Middle Prep or Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, both of which received the state’s lowest rating for student growth last year, would be taken over by the ASD effective next school year. The ASD has the legal authority to take over any Tennessee school in the bottom 5 percent as measured by performance.

Since then, some community members have expressed confusion as to why the middle schools in their community  were targeted, and what a state takeover might entail. ASD officials and Metro Nashville Public Schools board members have volleyed conflicting data points, and argued about whether the schools in Madison are already on an upward trend.

On Thursday, parents and children gathered at both schools to learn about LEAD Public Schools, the local charter organization that will take over whichever school the ASD chooses. At Neely’s Bend, they were joined by a contingent of staff members from LEAD’s current Nashville schools, and teachers’ union members from across the country, who lined the walkway to the school holding candles in support of traditional public schools. (The teachers were in town for an unrelated National Education Association conference.)

Air of tension

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, said at the start of the meeting at Neely’s Bend that he intended to help parents understand what makes a LEAD charter school different from a traditional public school. Earlier this week, Smalley said that ASD officials made a special effort to ensure fourth-grade parents could ask questions and share their concerns at the meetings. Because LEAD phases in grade-by-grade, current fourth-graders will be the first to attend the transformed school next fall.

ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley talks to a parent after the meeting.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley talks to a parent after the meeting.

But, mirroring similar informational meetings in Memphis, much of Thursday’s meetings was taken up be statements in support of both Madison and Neely’s Bend Middle Preps’ current administrations. A key difference from the Memphis meetings was that parents of current students, not teachers, dominated the discussion. Metro Nashville school board members weighed in as well, strongly opposing the state takeover.

Other than representatives from LEAD and the ASD, the only people who spoke in favor of takeover were parents at current LEAD schools.

Emotional parents, disagreements between ASD officials and Nashville school board members, and, at Neely’s Bend, a dearth of Spanish translators, added to the air of tension at the meetings. Fourth grade parents had to wait to ask specific questions — whether art classes would be offered at a LEAD school, or how long the school day would be, for example  — until after the meeting was over, and much of the crowd had dispersed.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of people who didn’t have chance to in this atmosphere to ask those questions,” Smalley said as parents clumped around LEAD teachers in green t-shirts. “You may have noticed that even though we asked for parents right at the beginning, I think that a certain tone was set by people who aren’t parents, who spoke for awhile,” he said, indirectly referring to a board member and state representative.

“I think that was unfortunate,” he said.

The meeting at Neely’s Bend ran slightly over its planned hour. Brittney Garland, a parent of two children at Neely’s Bend Elementary, said she was dissatisfied at the lack of time for parents to ask questions.

She said that she appreciated how Smalley addressed her concerns about the lack of communication with parents of younger elementary student parents.

But she said she left with a negative feeling about LEAD and the ASD because of the tension during the meeting and the rushed pace.

“If this is how disorganized these people are, and if this is their attitude — all of the negative energy,  you could just feel it — I definitely don’t want to be a part of it,” Garland said. She said she will be in a tough place if Neely’s Bend is selected for takeover, because, unlike most charter schools, students are assigned to ASD schools if they live in the residential zone.

But Israel Knife, another parent of a Neely’s Bend elementary student, said the meeting encouraged him to go to a LEAD open house next week. He said he thought a neighborhood LEAD school might present his daughter with better educational opportunities, and said that he looked forward to learning about LEAD’s academic model — a detail missing from both Thursday’s meetings.

All of the parents who spoke at the meeting were against a state takeover of the school, but Knife said that he wasn’t so sure, citing the school’s low test scores.

“It’s kind of scary that you feel like that’s your only choice,” he said.

Data disagreements

As in Memphis, data points were regularly brought up to both justify takeover and leaving the schools alone.

Metro Schools board members Jill Speering at Madison and Amy Frogge at Neely’s Bend presented data suggesting that LEAD’s current school in the ASD, Brick Church, showed less growth in test scores last year than Neely’s Bend or Madison. ASD officials refuted both of them — superintendent Chris Barbic at Madison, and Smalley at Neely’s Bend.

Board member Amy Frogge and an ASD official discuss data on the sidelines of the meeting.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Board member Amy Frogge and an ASD official discuss data on the sidelines of the meeting.

“You may have noticed that even though we asked for parents right at the beginning, I think that a certain tone was set by people who aren’t parents, who spoke for awhile. I think that was unfortunate,” Smalley said, referring indirectly to Frogge.

According to the state report card, Neely’s Bend and Madison had the lowest possible rating for overall growth last year, a one, while Brick Church College Prep had the highest, a five. As Speering and Frogge also noted, Neely’s Bend and Madison had higher passing rates on the TCAP than most schools in the ASD. (You can find the state report card here, and student growth data here.)

The ASD’s mixed academic results have been highly publicized. Smalley urged attendees to focus primarily on LEAD’s record, rather than the ASD’s.

Speering also noted that another LEAD school, Lead Academy, has been tapped by Metro Schools for persistently low test scores. Metro Schools sent LEAD a warning about the school in October. Charter schools can be closed if they don’t make sufficient gains in three years. Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, noted earlier this week that Lead Prep does have higher passing rates than either Neely’s Bend or Madison.

Smalley explained why the ASD focused on Neely’s Bend and Madison: Though neither are the lowest performing middle schools in Nashville, he said, they were chosen for potential takeover because all of the other low performing middle schools were either under-enrolled, or because of turnaround efforts are already in place. (You can read more about the ASD decision here).

Madison and Neely’s Bend have also undergone turnaround efforts in recent years, and both have new principals. The principal at Madison is in her second year, and the principal at Neely’s Bend started in September.

Smalley also briefly outlined the differences in school funding for the ASD and traditional public schools. The ASD has a slightly higher per-pupil-expenditure than Mtero Schools, and, Smalley said, because teachers at schools in the ASD have more autonomy, their funds can be spent more efficiently.

At Madison, some parents said that if their school had the resources of ASD schools like Brick Church, it might see the same gains — and noted their schools were doing better than other ASD schools, even without the resources.

Parents will have a chance to ask more questions at open houses at Brick Church College Prep and a second LEAD school, Cameron College Prep, on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10. Two days later, on Dec. 12, the ASD will announce its final decision.

Audio from Madison was contributed by Emily Siner at WPLN.