progress report

Dueling protests over Raleigh Egypt Middle School’s future raise questions about how much progress is enough

PHOTO: Mae Yearwood/Memphis Lift
Parents in the advocacy organization Memphis Lift gather at Raleigh Egypt Middle this fall.

Test scores are up at Raleigh Egypt Middle School. But it’s still in danger of state intervention, prompting demonstrations about the school this week.

On Tuesday, dozens of community members — spearheaded by a Shelby County Schools board member and state Rep. Antonio Parkinson — gathered outside Raleigh Egypt to call attention to the gains that are already underway.

On Wednesday, parents organized by Memphis Lift, a group that organizes parents to support turnaround efforts in priority schools, held a press conference of their own to argue that more dramatic changes are needed to boost student performance.

Raleigh-Egypt parents and community members protested against the ASD on Tuesday.
PHOTO: Provided by Antonio Parkinson
Raleigh-Egypt parents and community members protested against the ASD on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Antonio Parkinson)

The competing demonstrations show that tensions remain high over the state-run district’s approach to overhauling low-performing schools, even after the ASD changed its process to involve communities more. They also highlight ongoing ambivalence about the state’s way of measuring school improvement.

The school is one of five in Memphis that could be added to the ASD this year. The state-run district is permitted by law to absorb any school whose scores are in the lowest 5 percent statewide.

There’s no question that students at Raleigh Egypt Middle have low test scores. Just 22 percent of students met the state’s proficiency bar in math and 15 percent in reading this year, rates that lag significantly behind the rest of Shelby County and the state averages.

But the state’s own measures of growth suggest that the school is making significant strides — larger than many other schools. Raleigh Egypt’s reading scores grew as much as expected and its math scores increased by much more than they were expected to, based on students’ demographics and past performance.

Those scores led it narrowly to miss a new bar, established in state law last year, to avoid ASD intervention. That law said that schools with an overall growth score of 4 or 5 (on the state’s 5-point scale) could not be added to the state-run district. Raleigh Egypt earned 5’s in math and science but only a 3 in reading, leading to an overall score of 3.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, the Democratic legislator from Memphis who wrote the new law, said she thought Raleigh Egypt fell within the spirit of the law she designed.

“I know the law we passed last year is 4 or 5, but there is a gray area. We need to look at the gray area. They are killing it in math,” she said about the school. “When you see that Level 5 TVAAS [in math], I think you’re on the brink of great things. I’d like to see them stay with the local school district.”

Shelby County Schools has taken steps to change Raleigh Egypt’s trajectory. The school got a new principal last year, Ronnie Mackin, who previously led Memphis’s Kingsbury Middle School as it hurtled from the bottom tier in the state to the top. (Mackin was also on the ASD’s founding team of administrators.) Parkinson said he had also helped to line up support for the school from local churches and corporate partners.

Similar changes helped propel Raleigh Egypt High School forward and resulted in the school coming off of the ASD’s intervention list this year. (Community members protested the ASD’s plans for that school, too.) With more time, the same thing could happen at the middle school, Parkinson said.

“We put all of these things in place,” he said. “We don’t want the ASD to drop a grenade in the middle of that and disrupt it.”

The middle school went from Level 1 to Level 3 on the state’s growth measure, Parkinson added. “I don’t know what else you want us to do to show that we’re on the right trajectory.”

The parents who protested outside the school today say quicker change is needed. And ASD officials say parents, not elected officials, are the best people to determine what changes need to be made. The district has convened a committee of parents to evaluate a plan by the charter operator Scholar Academies to overhaul the school, which would remove it from the local district’s oversight.

In a statement Tuesday, outgoing ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic accused the people who oppose the ASD’s intervention of also opposing other efforts to improve low-performing schools, including Shelby County Schools’ own Innovation Zone initiative. Schools that join the iZone get additional resources and a longer day but remain within Shelby County Schools.

It is unfortunate that some elected officials—with no children in the schools involved—hesitate to give … control to interested parents and community members,” Barbic said. “These are the same elected officials who not only oppose the positive work happening in the Achievement School District, but are also fighting against the positive work of Superintendent [Dorsey] Hopson and his team courageously leading the iZone efforts.”

Parkinson rejected that characterization, saying that he would welcome Raleigh Egypt’s addition to the Innovation Zone.

“I support what Dorsey Hopson is doing,” he said. “The iZone performance is kicking the crap out of the ASD’s performance. Who wouldn’t support that?”

Parkinson also said he did not oppose the ASD’s intervention in local schools in principle. But he questioned why Raleigh Egypt would be overhauled when there exist schools with similarly low test scores that aren’t yet on the upswing.

“If your agenda is education, it seems like you would focus on the children where the need is the most,” Parkinson said.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”