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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”