Green Dot prepares to “transform” first school in Memphis

Green Dot,  a charter management organization that runs 19 schools in Los Angeles, is planning to begin running its first school outside of California next year, right here in Memphis.

Green Dot is one of a number of national charter organizations that have been recruited to come to Tennessee as part of the Achievement School District, or ASD, a state-run district that sets out to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Most of those schools are in Memphis. Schools taken over by the ASD  have school-level autonomy over hiring, curriculum, and scheduling decisions, and most are being run by independent charter management organizations like Green Dot.

Green Dot will begin running Fairley High School, which is currently part of Shelby County Schools, next fall. The ASD “matched” Green Dot to Fairley in December, and the school will become part of the ASD in 2014-15. Students who attend Fairley now will still be zoned to the school, while teachers will need to apply to Green Dot to continue to work at Fairley.

Green Dot started out running an independent charter school, but has since “turned around” several low-performing schools in Los Angeles. (Green Dot described a day in the life of a student and a teacher on the ASD’s website.)

Green Dot’s Megan Quaile. (J. Zubrzycki)

Right now, Green Dot has exactly two employees in Memphis: Megan Quaile, a former principal who’s now Green Dot’s vice president of national expansion, and Miska Clay Bibbs, a former employee of Memphis City Schools who’s now Green Dot’s director of community engagement. But Green Dot is in the process of hiring a full school’s worth of employees and a Memphis-based administrative team, and could eventually run as many as 10 schools in the city.

Chalkbeat spoke with Quaile about why Green Dot chose Memphis, about finding the right people to turn around a high school, and on why Green Dot prefers to talk about “transforming” rather than “taking over” a school.

On expanding to Memphis:

We have 19 schools currently in L.A.. We felt ready to expand our mission. We’ve been in conversation with a significant number of cities, and created a process – a rubric [to help determine where to go]. Can we create a financially stable model? Is the law conducive to turnaround schools? Is there political will and community engagement? Is there a system in place and willingness for students to do that? Are there facilities? Human capital? Memphis came out strong… We didn’t want to make whimsical decisions about growth.

On human capital in Memphis and in L.A.:

We can put systems in place, but if we don’t have right people at the table it’s not going to matter. My biggest concern is, are we going to get the right people? [In Los Angeles], we live in a city where we have a huge set of university systems. There’s an attractiveness to L.A. We just don’t know it here as well. It’s not that it’s not going to happen – we just don’t know. But there’s groups like …Funding is better in Tennessee [than in California]. We used that to hire more supports, more coaches. We will be hiring a principal very soon. We’re not hiring a Memphian just to hire a Memphian, but our final candidates are from here. … We’re starting teacher interviews soon, too. We will interview anyone from the school who applies. I’m not naive enough to think we’ll hear from every teacher, but we have talked to some who are interested.

 One difference: As part of the ASD, teachers won’t be unionized, whereas in L.A., Quaile says, “Green Dot’s teachers are purposely unionized.”

On collaboration between Green Dot schools:

We don’t want to be an organization that offers one-off schools. One of the things we value is collaboration. Our 19 campuses work well together – our principals meet every month, we do a lot of shared teacher PD (Professional Development). The hope was to build enough of a network in Tennessee to have similar collaboration, too. 

For now, Quaile said, some leadership and administrative staff will fly in from L.A. occasionally to run trainings and get things up and running in Memphis.

On collaboration between Green Dot and other charter schools within the ASD:

The attitude around collaboration [in the ASD] is 100% different [than in Los Angeles]. Here it’s very purposeful. [Charter leaders] meet on discipline, communications – all of us are up against confusion and misinformation- teachers. Those kinds of things are the most important for us to collaborate on.  If one of our organizations fails, it looks bad for the ASD in general.

On perceptions of Green Dot and the ASD:

People know what the ASD is by now. They don’t know how an individual operator and the ASD work together. I think we’re all figuring that out. I can tell you the rumors I’ve heard about Fairley. I’ve had students say, oh, you’re not going to have a football team, not going to have band, you’re not going to take special education students. That’s not true. The one that shocked me was a student came in and said, I hear we’re not going to be allowed to graduate on a stage. That’s sad.  …[At Fairley],  from what we could gather, they were a little surprised [that the school’s scores were low enough for it to become part of the ASD.] There was a bit of disbelief. 

On dealing with community unease:

Once you build a relationship with parents, those kinds of conversations tamper down a bit. It’s fair for parents to be concerned about what happens – they should be, we want them to be invested and protective. Those conversations tend to happen less frequently as the school builds relationships in the community.

How they’re planning for the transition:

We’re making a Fairley Transition Advisory Team, with four community members and community partners, four parents, four teachers. [That team will visit the LA office and talk through various decisions that still need to be made before school starts in the Fall.]

On turnarounds and hard work. 

People need to understand that the first few months will be very tough. We know this. It’s about getting people who are a unified front. It falls apart if it’s not.

On using the word transformation rather than takeover. 

We don’t don’t ever want students to feel it’s their fault their school’s being taken over, which can happen when that language is used. We say “transformation.”

On preparations:

Green Dot hasn’t spent much time in the school yet. Quaile and her team have visited several times since they were “matched.” For now, she’s still hoping to learn more about the school and its students – for instance, the school still needs to get transcripts so it can begin planning schedules and courses.

On opening enrollment in ASD schools up to any student:

If you live in Memphis and want to go to the school, I don’t know why we’d not allow you.