Parents and students chanting “Leave us alone!” congregated Thursday outside of Sheffield Elementary School to send a message to the Tennessee Achievement School District that their struggling Memphis school is making enough strides to avoid state intervention.

One of five Memphis schools targeted for state takeover and charter conversion next year under an ASD proposal, Sheffield is among the lowest-performing schools in both Shelby County Schools and the state. But under new leadership in the last two years, the school is beginning to turn that trajectory.

“Why would you want to take over a school that is improving?” asked Barbara Riddle, whose two grandchildren attend Sheffield.

Riddle was among about 60 parents and students gathered outside the school’s main entrance after the school day to show their support of the school’s current leadership and their confidence in the administration’s turnaround strategy.

“I’m here to save our school,” said Riddle, applauding the work of principal Patricia Griggs-Merriweather. “She’s laid the foundation. Why not give her the opportunity to build on it? I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, whose district includes the school, questioned whether the payoff from state intervention would be worth the disruption of wresting control of Sheffield from Shelby County Schools and turning it over to Aspire Public Schools, the charter network that has applied to manage the school.

“I don’t want those students to go through the trauma of a takeover where the principal is gone, all the teachers have been fired, and a whole new mentality comes in,” said Akbari (D-Memphis). “… Our principal is getting it right. Don’t interrupt the progress that we’re making.”

Since 2012, Sheffield has been on Tennessee’s list of priority schools that fall in the state’s bottom 5 percent. On standardized tests last school year, 38 percent of its students met the state’s proficiency bar in math and 14 percent in reading — lagging behind the district and significantly behind state averages.

But the state’s own measures of growth suggest that the school is making significant strides — almost enough to keep it from state intervention under a new Tennessee law sponsored by Akbari and removing a priority school from ASD eligibility with a TVAAS growth score of 4 or 5. Sheffield’s reading scores grew slightly and its math scores increased by more than expected, based on student demographics and past performance, earning a TVAAS score of 3.

“The criteria for ASD eligibility are clear, and since the recent passing of the TVAAS law championed by Rep. Akbari, it is now clearer than ever,” said a statement released Thursday evening by the ASD.

ASD leaders said they welcome parent input and encouraged them to be part of the district’s community engagement process through a neighborhood advisory council currently reviewing Aspire’s application to convert Sheffield to a charter.

The council, they said, “is asking tough, thoughtful questions of Aspire Public Schools regarding their Application for School Transformation and vision for what a partnership with Sheffield Elementary could look like. We have also surveyed dozens of Sheffield parents. We feel confident that we will be able to make a thoughtful decision about potential conversion of Sheffield, inclusive of neighborhood voices, in early December.”

Sheffield stakeholders line the street in front of their school during Thursday's protest.
Sheffield stakeholders line the street in front of their school during Thursday’s protest.
PHOTO CREDIT: Micaela Watts

The Sheffield protest was organized by the school’s parent-teacher organization but purposefully mobilized parents — not the educators who likely would lose their jobs in a charter conversion — in an effort to demonstrate grassroots parental support of the school’s efforts.

Sheffield’s protest was the second in as many weeks at ASD-targeted schools. Last week, dozens of community members gathered outside of Raleigh Egypt Middle School to call attention to the gains underway there.

The ASD, created under state law in 2010 to turn around chronically underperforming schools, currently oversees 27 Memphis schools. While its schools’ test scores are far from reaching the district’s ambitious goals, the ASD has been lauded by state and local leaders for creating a sense of urgency to improve schools whose scores have languished for decades.