Future of Schools

Parents hear opposing perspectives on proposed Memphis charter conversions

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Parents and community members listen to discussion Tuesday evening about the future of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary schools in Memphis.

Felicia Johnson came to a community meeting Tuesday evening to learn about the future of the middle school attended by her two sons. Raleigh Egypt Middle is one of six struggling Memphis schools that could be converted into charters in 2016 under a proposal unveiled last week by the state’s Achievement School District.

But like most parents in attendance, she’d rather the school stay under the control of Shelby County Schools, without state intervention, even though Raleigh Egypt is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools academically.

“The principal that’s there now at Raleigh Egypt Middle, he’s only been there a year,” Johnson said. “And in the year he’s been there, he’s made progress.”

Tuesday’s gathering was the first of four community meetings planned during the next week to introduce parents to the ASD’s proposal, seek community input and answer questions about potential conversions. About 200 people attended the forum hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children.

The hour-long discussion, preceded by a dinner of pizza and soft drinks provided by BAEO, oscillated between a carefully orchestrated presentation by ASD officials and passionate outbursts by Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love. Love questioned the wisdom of targeting Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary — two schools that she says are improving without state intervention.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions during the meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told the crowd that no decision will be made about the schools until December after receiving community input on what’s best for the schools and the students.

“All tonight is about is figuring out what is the best option,” he said. “That’s what the goal is over the next several weeks and months. If that best option is continuing what’s happening, then good. If a school can get better just like it is, then we’re open to that. All we’re trying to do is make the best decision.”

Love argued that the two schools would be better served by the local district because both of their principals are implementing turnaround plans.

“I believe in the teachers, I believe in the principals, I believe in the parents. And I am in full support of Shelby County Schools keeping control of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary School,” Love said, prompting a standing ovation from most of the crowd.

State BAEO director Mendell Grinter, who served as moderator, told parents that the relationship between the ASD and Shelby County Schools is not a hostile one.

“Our conversation shouldn’t get into Shelby County Public Schools versus the Achievement School District,” Grinter said. “They’re not enemies; oftentimes they’ve worked together. They’re going to have to work together in this process if we’re going to be successful in making sure our kids are getting a quality education.”

Both Grinter and Barbic emphasized the importance of community involvement in determining the best pathway to achieve student improvement. Everyone in attendance received an application to participate in the ASD’s new neighborhood advisory councils, which will have input on which charter operators potentially could be matched with each school. The deadline to apply for the councils is Sept. 21.

Attendees also received information sheets about the ASD, as well as a glossary defining terms such as “charter operator” and “TVAAS.”

The community meetings are part of the ASD’s new community engagement process designed to give parents and other stakeholders more input in important decisions regarding the future of their schools. In previous years, the district hosted community meetings to announce that the schools were being taken from local district control for state-authorized charter conversion, prompting angry outbursts and protests from teachers and parents. This year’s meetings are to discuss the possibility.

“Our job is to not tell you what’s going to happen,” said Barbic, who was also applauded occasionally by the crowd. “Our only goal tonight is for everyone to understand what the process is moving forward.”

Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.

Previous community meetings were held at schools, while this year’s gatherings are in neighborhood churches.

Audience members were given notecards to write down questions and concerns, and Grinter read them aloud. Some wanted to know how the state’s TVAAS model for measuring growth works. Others asked what would happen to their students and teachers if the school is removed from Shelby County Schools and placed under the state’s oversight.

Barbic answered most questions, saying any student at a school chosen for conversion has the option to stay there or transfer to another school. All teachers can re-apply to their school, but the new charter operator has full autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing.

The meeting drew different opinions from people in attendance.

“The answers to the questions are still not clear, but I think what they did tonight was give me an open eye to what’s really going on,” said Johnnie Hatten, a Frayser community member who has been active in the Memphis Lift parent advocacy group. “Nobody disagreed that the scores were not right. The schools are failing our kids.”

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson was more skeptical. “It’s more of a tactic than it is necessarily a meeting for families,” said the Memphis Democrat. “It’s a meeting so that they can say there was a meeting.”

Here are the other schools named for possible conversion and the schedule of community meetings planned to discuss them:

Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools — Thursday, Sept. 17, 6-8 p.m., The Place of Outpouring at Olivet Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church, 4450 Knight Arnold Road

Hillcrest High School — Saturday, Sept. 19, 12-2 p.m., Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, 3890 Millbranch Road

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School — Tuesday, Sept. 22, 6-8 p.m., Mount Austin Missionary Baptist Church, 1178 Breedlove St.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.