Hundreds of community members protest state takeover, charters

Hundreds of fired-up teachers, parents, and community members at Raleigh Egypt High and American Way Middle schools shouted down state education and charter officials Monday night with chants and boos at two meetings intended to introduce charter school operators to the school communities they might absorb next year.

Members of the crowd at Raleigh Egypt said attempts at taking over schools was not only ineffective and destructive, but amounted to a scheme to make money off children, a charge officials flatly denied.

It was yet another flashpoint in what has become almost a ritual every fall in Memphis: tense face-to-face confrontations between community members and charter officials over the fate of chronically underperforming traditional public schools.

“I’m with you,” Stephanie Love, a Shelby County Schools board member who has children that attend schools that have been taken over by the state, told the Raleigh Egypt crowd. “I will fight for our children. Our children will not be used as another failed experiment.”

According to law, the state’s Achievement School District can take control of schools that fall in the academic bottom five percent of Tennessee public schools, and hand them over to privately-run charter operators. The charters can replace the staff, change the school’s name, and make dramatic change to curriculum and discipline proceedings.

Almost a full third of Memphis’ schools are eligible to be taken over within the next three years. This year, the ASD has promised to hand over nine schools to one of  seven charters. Two of those schools, South Side Middle and A.B. Hill Elementary, were taken off the list Monday when Freedom Prep and KIPP, decided against participating in the process because of capacity concerns. For many activists, the news only caused more confusion, distrust, and hope that their school could be next to be taken off the list.

ASD officials say they will pair Raleigh Egypt High School with Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network founded in California and will consider pairing American Way Middle with Yes Prep, a charter network based in Houston.

Last year, just over half of the students at Raleigh High School graduated and barely a fifth of students at American Way Middle School met basic state English standards.

Across the city, ministers, teachers, parents students and alumni have spent the past week pulling school data to compare to charter schools, designing elaborate signs, launching social media campaigns, and signing petitions.

Conspiracy theories have abounded about why the ASD is taking over mostly black and poor schools in Memphis and what charter schools’ true motivations are.  Several community leaders and educators have questioned why the ASD is allowed to expand when its results to date have been mixed.

The community meetings, which will take place throughout this week, are an attempt by the ASD, which has no locally-elected board, to incorporate community voice when it makes final decisions in December about which schools the district will take over, and which charter networks will receive which schools.  For charter officials, these meetings are a chance to convince as many parents and teachers as possible to return next year.

At American way Monday night, ASD officials served pizza and soda and tried to hold small-group sessions for the first hour before conducting a town hall style  meeting.

When Yes Prep officials suggested the group split into two groups to continue the discussion, attendees protested, demanding the group stick together.

Students chanted “No Prep! No Prep!”  while shaking signs that read “10 years and on, keep our name strong” and “We’re not going down without a fight.”

Seventh-grader Kaiya Newsome wanted to know why the school couldn’t receive a second chance.

Her mother, Keiva Newsome, had many questions about the takeover process since it would mean her daughter would attend a different school next year.

“I’m satisfied with the education she’s received here,” Newsome said.  “Of course anything can be improved, but they’ve given her extra help, they’re wonderful and our principal checks on her students.”

“The community meetings are an important part of the process and we’re going to make every second available to hear every concern over the next six weeks,” said Bill Durbin who is leading up Yes Prep’s expansion in Memphis.

Tajuana G. Cheshier contributed reporting to this story.