Future of Schools

Neighborhood councils to consider state-proposed charters for six Memphis schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Alicia Tomlinson stands with her son, Jacobi, outside of Hawkins Mill Elementary School, where Jacobi is in the first grade. Tomlinson has applied to serve on her school's neighborhood advisory council.

Alicia Tomlinson already was concerned whether her son was getting an adequate education when she learned that his was among six Memphis schools targeted for state takeover because of poor academic performance.

So Tomlinson, 41, applied to join a community panel that state officials say will help determine the future of Hawkins Mill Elementary School. The state-run Achievement School District proposes to remove Hawkins Mill from the control of Shelby County Schools and convert it to an ASD-operated charter school.

“I am a strong believer that I should make every effort to see what other options I have to make sure my son gets the best education,” said Tomlinson, whose son, Jacobi, is a first-grader at Hawkins Mill. “I wanted to see for myself what the ASD has to offer my son.”

Tomlinson is expected to learn early this week whether she has been selected to serve on one of four neighborhood advisory councils created by the ASD as part of its new process to involve parents, community leaders and other local stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The councils are a critical component in the district’s new community engagement initiative, rolled out during the summer after ASD officials acknowledged numerous missteps when taking over other Memphis schools during its first three years of operations.

“We heard loud and clear from all of our stakeholders that there are certain questions that we want the operators to be able to answer to know if they’re going to be a strong fit for those schools,” said Anjelica Hardin, director of strategic partnerships for the ASD.

ASD leaders say the need for state intervention at Hawkins Mill is clear, while leaders with Shelby County Schools have touted existing plans to help the school improve without state intervention.

Last year, only 16 percent of Hawkins Mill students were proficient or advanced in reading language arts, almost 37 percent in math, and nearly 28 percent in science. The school is on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, allowing the ASD to intervene under state law.

In previous years, the state’s school turnaround district announced which schools would be taken over and quickly introduced their new charter operators. For the most part, the community was approached after the decision already had been made. Under the ASD’s new process, parents and community members serving on the councils interact with interested charter operators throughout the fall and review operator applications, scheduled for submission by Oct. 23.

“We want people to know that this is really a community decision that is a definite priority area for the leadership team,” Hardin said, “and that folks really know this is a big opportunity to be engaged, because literally the decision is in your hands.”

Critics have questioned how much power the councils actually have, however. ASD leaders will make the final decision in early December, after council members submit individual assessments of charter applicants. If the process does not produce a match between a school and an operator, the school will remain with Shelby County Schools, according to ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron.

ASD-led training for selected council members is scheduled to begin next week.

The ASD aims to have 10 members on each of its four councils, half of them parents. Of the 190 applications received, 85 came from parents, Aaron said. Parents, in particular, had been encouraged to apply at numerous community meetings held at the schools over the last two months by leaders both with the ASD and Shelby County Schools.

Some stakeholders have questioned whether the resulting pool of applicants was sufficient to adequately represent school communities.

Patricia Merriweather, principal of Sheffield Elementary, another school targeted for takeover, said Sheffield includes a large percentage of Hispanic students and English language learners. “I’m OK with the process as long as it is fair,” Merriweather said. “They promised me there would be people on the panel who have been in Sheffield.”

Tomlinson is one of three parents who applied to serve on a council for Hawkins Mill.

“I was a bit taken aback that there wasn’t more parents,” Tomlinson said about the subsequent interview process. “Parental participation is the weakest link that should be the strongest presence.”

Going forward, Tomlinson said she has no preference on whether Hawkins Mill remains with the Memphis-based district or joins the state-run district, as long as her son gets the best education possible.

“I’m just a mom,” she said, “(but) I appreciate the way they’re involving us.”

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.