After years of dwindling enrollment, the only middle school in Memphis that’s run directly by Tennessee’s turnaround district could be switching hands.
The proposed change would keep Westside Achievement Middle School in the state-run Achievement School District but take it out of the district’s direct management. The plan would be to move Westside to Frayser Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter network that already operates two ASD schools.
Interim ASD Superintendent Kathleen Airhart announced the proposed change during a meeting Tuesday evening with more than 50 community members, parents, and students.
The recommendation is in line with major changes in the ASD in the last year as federal funding for the turnaround district has run out and Tennessee’s Department of Education has revised its turnaround strategies under a new federal education law.
The ASD manages five direct-run Memphis schools, all in the Frayser community, but there are no plans to relinquish control of the other four schools, according to Airhart. The other four are elementary schools.
Handing off Westside to Frayser Community Schools would allow the district to avoid the drastic step of closing the school — an option that three other charter operators in the ASD’s portfolio have chosen when faced with many of the same issues.
The discussion comes at a time when district leaders are trying to rehabilitate the ASD’s image after turnaround efforts at most of its 32 schools haven’t improved test scores as much as founding leaders promised. Earlier this month, officials with a Houston-based charter organization announced plans to shutter GRAD Academy, the district’s highest-performing high school, this spring due to enrollment and financial issues.
Airhart said a change is needed due to multiple challenges at Westside, including lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. The school’s enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, when it joined the state-run district, and lost 18 percent of students just this year.
“When I got here in October, I said there were places where the house was on fire,” Airhart told the crowd. “Places where we had to worry about big things before the small things. Westside was one of those places.”
The state won’t make an official decision until late February after parents, teachers, and students have had a chance to weigh in, Airhart said, adding that more meetings will be held over the next month. She said the district would continue to run the school if there is intense opposition.
This wouldn’t be the first time Frayser Community Schools has stepped in to manage an ASD school that’s struggling with test scores and enrollment. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the district.
Bobby White, the CEO who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, has maintained that his organization has the relationships and know-how to build enrollment in Memphis while also making academic gains.
And he has a Westside tie: White was a principal at Westside nine years ago when it was operated by the former Memphis City Schools.
“I’m nervous to speak to you all because this is my house,” White said at the parent meeting. “This is deeply personal to me. … I left schools to start a turnaround organization where we took over existing schools and turn them around. We can do that here.”
Several parents and community members in the room Tuesday said they were disappointed with the amount of teacher turnover at West Side Middle under the ASD, but expressed optimism about a change.
“I really have faith that if Bobby [White] comes here and teachers stay — good teachers come and stay — then my son can be successful here,” said Markeita Douglas, a Frayser resident with a 12-year-old son. “As a parent, I’m going to hold you accountable, because my son cannot fall through the cracks.”