Achievement School District

Six Memphis schools chosen for possible charter conversion by state turnaround district

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Parents at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School listen to a presentation by Shelby School leaders on Aug. 20 about the Memphis school's status as a state priority school. On Thursday, state officials named Caldwell-Guthrie one of six schools that may taken from local district control and converted to a charter school.

Targeting Memphis to expand its school turnaround footprint for a fourth straight year, the state’s Achievement School District on Thursday named six academically underperforming schools for possible charter conversion in 2016.

All six chosen schools — which rank academically in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools — have one or more charter operators who have expressed interest in potential conversions. Those operators already manage schools in Memphis, have been approved for expansion by the ASD, and must formally apply by Oct. 23 for a potential match.

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Stakeholders for 10 Memphis priority schools eligible for state intervention had been waiting anxiously to learn their possible fate. However, only six received letters of interest from approved charter operators who are authorized by the state to expand. The four priority schools eliminated from the process this year include Carver, Douglass, Northside and Westwood high schools.

For the state-run ASD, Thursday’s announcement unleashes its public effort to match the right schools with the right charter operators and to build consensus within local communities that the time is right to shake up chronically struggling neighborhood schools. It also steps up the district’s new five-month community engagement process designed to diffuse local mistrust that led to heated protests in previous years from residents angry about state intervention in neighborhood schools.

For local stakeholders, the possibility of charter conversion sparks a year of uncertainty about how teachers, students and the local district might be impacted. Schools that move from the purview of Shelby County Schools to the state-run district undergo massive overhauls in faculty, curriculum, policies and protocols, sometimes even getting a new school name.

Officials shared the news Wednesday and Thursday with faculty and staff at the six affected schools and will hold a series of town forums beginning next week to notify and engage parents, according to ASD officials.

Unlike in previous years, matches between priority schools and an interested approved operator won’t be automatic. A centerpiece of the ASD’s new community engagement process is the creation of neighborhood advisory councils that will review charter applications and community input. Local and state education leaders have encouraged parents, students and community members to apply online by Sept. 21 to participate in the councils.

“… We are working to elevate parent voice and ensure they are the ones leading this process,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said in a news release.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who spoke with parents and community members in August at a series of district-sponsored community meetings at priority schools, emphasized the importance of local engagement Thursday as the ASD unveiled the list of schools that may be removed from local district control.

“This is always an emotional process, so it was important to us to engage parents in these school communities early to ensure they know about their options within Shelby County Schools,” Hopson said in a statement. “We care a great deal about all of the students, teachers and staff in every one of these schools and will continue to support them and work aggressively to increase student achievement as they are going through the ASD’s community input process.”

Shelby County Schools — which has lost the most schools, students and funding statewide to ASD control — initiated its community meetings to inform parents what being a priority school means and discuss the potential for state intervention. The meetings were held in auditoriums and cafeterias of five of the six schools named by the ASD on Thursday and were attended by parents, teachers and community members. Many parents and students asked questions about what could happen going forward and expressed frustration about the lack of communication in previous years.

School leaders encouraged parents to stay involved and apply to be part of the ASD’s neighborhood advisory councils.

“We don’t know what the ASD is going to do different, but I would strongly suggest to you parents to ask them,” board member Stephanie Love told parents at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary. “Don’t wait until after it has happened and begin to ask those questions.”

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Barbic emphasized that the future of the six schools is not set in stone and that decisions won’t come until December. “This is an open engagement period, and no final decisions have been made about these schools,” he said.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who spearheaded legislation this year aimed at giving improving priority schools opportunity to stay with their local districts, urged the ASD to be transparent in the process that may lead to removal of a school from local district control.

“I think the important thing is to make sure the community is informed and engaged instead of being told this is how it’s going to be,” Akbari said Thursday. “Last year, there was not a positive reaction from the community that influenced the operators who were scheduled to come in. It creates a lack of trust in the process.”

While five of the six eligible schools could potentially be matched with a charter operator, the ASD is considering operating Hawkins Mill Elementary itself because of improvement in state test scores at its five current schools in the Frayser community of Memphis, where Hawkins Mill is also located.

“Last year, our achievement schools had a really solid year,” Barbic said. “We put ourselves through the same performance framework that we put our operators through, and we are considering adding another direct-run school to the mix.”

If all six tapped schools come under state control, the ASD will oversee 33 schools next year in Memphis, which has Tennessee’s highest concentration of underperforming schools and has become a battleground for state, local and philanthropic school improvement efforts.

“There were 59 schools in Memphis on the priority list when we started this work in 2012,” Barbic said. “Between the ASD, the (Shelby County Schools) iZone, and other Shelby County turnaround efforts, next year there will be an intervention plan in place for every school on the priority list in Memphis.

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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.