Tennessee

Only two bills still alive out of 22 to limit the state’s school turnaround district

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari's district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state's Achievement School District.

Two months after the leader of the state’s school turnaround district implored lawmakers to give the sweeping program time to succeed or fail, it appears that Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) will weather the legislative session intact.

As the 109th General Assembly enters its final month, only two of 22 bills to limit the district’s authority are left standing. Of those, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had input in both.

The remaining two bills were approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

The first, introduced by Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) and Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), requires the state Department of Education to notify schools that they are in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools a year before the release of the state’s priority list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent and makes them vulnerable to state takeover. The intention is to give struggling schools time to improve before the state intervenes.

The second bill, sponsored by Tate and Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high student growth scores.

The House sponsors of both bills said they were willing to compromise with officials from the ASD and the state Education Department because they want results for their constituents. More sweeping legislation – such as bills to abolish the school district altogether – never received motions for discussion, much less votes.

Love and Akbari revised their bills after talking with officials from the ASD and the Education Department, which Barbic said he appreciated. “We want to make sure folks understand what we’re doing, and sit down and have those conversations,” he said.

Akbari and Love told Chalkbeat they don’t oppose the ASD, but they do oppose the district’s process for state intervention. They said their constituents often feel bullied by the district’s rapid action.

“It may take a few years for [the ASD] to be more palatable [to constituents] because, right now, it’s viewed as an intrusion — let me use better words — it’s viewed as a takeover,” Love said. “Anything like that happens and it hurts the chances of successes.”

The bill to give warning to struggling schools is scheduled to be discussed April 7 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. The bill to prohibit takeover of schools with high TVAAS scores is slated for consideration April 8 in the House Finance subcommittee.

The legislative climate for the ASD today has improved somewhat since February when Barbic – besieged by legislative proposals targeting the 4-year-old district – testified before the Senate Education Committee. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” Barbic said amidst a lengthy discussion.

Akbari and Love had filed other bills intended to curb the ASD’s intervention process. Both moved to disallow phase-in models, in which the ASD’s charter operator takes over a school only one grade at a time while the local district continues to operate the remaining grades. They argued that the model – known as co-location – hurts students in older grades who are stuck in a school that the state has labeled as failing.

“I had one parent tell me it was like some children were going to this new special school, and other children were just getting the resources leftover,” Akbari said. “And I don’t want any child to feel like that.”

Shelby County Schools no longer allows the ASD to co-locate with their schools, which was a contributing factor in a decision last week by YES Prep, a Texas-based charter operator, to pull out of Memphis.

Love also originally had filed a bill to forbid the ASD from adding grades that the school didn’t serve before its takeover. For instance, the LEAD charter network, which will operate Neely’s Bend Middle School in Nashville, is considering eventually adding a high school at that location.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Ultimately, Akbari and Love said they focused on the two bills that have the best chance of passing.

“The other bills, you know, they’re so important to me,” Akbari said. “But I don’t think we can get any sort of support for them [this year], and that’s the key.”

However, Akbari said the ASD and its work will remain a subject for potential future legislation. “I am not going to let the issue fade into the sunset,” she said. “These issues are too important for those who live in Memphis.”

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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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.