ASD’s decision in Nashville based on parent response more than numbers, officials say

The Achievement School District will take control of  Neely’s Bend Middle Prep in Nashville next school year, officials announced today — not Madison Middle, the slightly lower performing school just a few miles away the ASD was also considering for turnaround.

It has been just three weeks since teachers, parents, and community members in Madison, a tight-knit community on the northeastern fringe of Nashville, learned that one of their two middle schools would go under the control of the statewide district.

But in a city relatively unfamiliar with the ASD — this will only be the second ASD school in Nashville, while ASD schools in Memphis will now number 28 — the looming decision sparked intense debate over a short period of time.

Neely’s Bend will be operated by LEAD Public Schools, the Nashville-based charter management organization that operates Nashville’s only other ASD school, Brick Church College Prep.

“I’m just completely shocked,” said Jill Speering, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board member who represents both schools.

Speering said she was thought that Madison would be transformed, because of its lower test scores, and because Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, and Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, attended the Dec. 4 parent meeting at Madison about the takeover process, but not the one at Neely’s Bend, which was held simultaneously.

“I just did not anticipate that they would take the higher performing school,” she said. “This makes me think that this is about what’s best for the ASD.”Neely’s Bend got a new principal in September, and Metro Nashville Schools invested $280,000 in turnaround efforts at the school this year. Speering said she believes the school should have been given a chance to turn itself around.The ASD has the legal authority to take over any Tennessee school on the priority list, which comprises the lowest performing  5 percent of schools according to test scores.ASD officials said the primary reasons for their pick was that parents in the Neely’s Bend area seemed more receptive to a LEAD school, and LEAD has a good track record with non-native English speakers, who make up about one-third of Neely’s Bend student population. In addition to collecting feedback at the Dec. 4 parent meetings, ASD representatives and LEAD staff members knocked on doors throughout Madison.

“It was less about where things were the most negative, and more about where we felt families were more open and positive,” Barbic said. The number of responses mattered, too. Almost half of the surveys LEAD and the ASD received from Neely’s Bend parents said the parents were willing to consider LEAD, and  “fewer people [zoned to Madison Middle] actually opened their doors so we could talk to them,” Barbic said.

He said the differences in data between Madison and Neely’s Bend was “a wash,” and although they took into account turnaround efforts already underway at Neely’s Bend, like the brand new principal and Metro Schools funds, the other factors were more important.

Jesse Register, the chief of Metro Nashville Schools, said in a prepared statement that he disagreed with the ASD’s decision.

“I believe that conversion decisions are best made at the local level rather than by the state run Achievement School District,” he said.  ‘I do not agree with the decision of the Achievement School District to take Neely’s Bend Middle School into the ASD and have previously stated that to the ASD and to LEAD charter school officials.  This decision is not ours to make.”

Parent reaction

Parents received phone calls Friday afternoon, Barbic said.

One mother, Patrice Gentry, said she was thrilled to learn Neely’s Bend was being transformed. Her daughter will be in the first class of fifth graders at the new school. She said that if Neely’s Bend had not been chosen, she was considering driving her daughter across town to KIPP, another charter school.

“I had grandkids who went to Neely’s Bend, and it just didn’t go right,” she said. “Something needs to be changed before I send my child there.”

But other parents see a takeover as a signal that they should look elsewhere for schooling. Brittney Garland is the secretary of the parent teachers organization at Neely’s Bend Elementary. She said she and other parents already are planning a carpool to drive to another middle school, rather than go to a LEAD school, in part because of mistrust in the ASD after what felt to her like a rushed processed.

Garland also said that it seemed many Neely’s Bend Elementary parents were still unaware of the ASD.

Neely’s Bend will be taken over year by year, starting with only fifth graders next year. LEAD was the first charter group in Nashville to undertake such a phase-in, with its non-ASD charter school Cameron College Prep, starting in 2011.

The debate over the ASD takeover in Nashville was centered not over which school should be transformed, but whether the ASD should take over either of them. Data was lobbed back and forth between ASD officials and activists, both of whom reached different conclusions about LEAD and the ASD’s track record.

Although the ASD has a mixed record in Memphis — a fact that came up often at meetings leading up to the decision — its Nashville school, Brick Church, saw the largest test score gains in the ASD this year, with the passing rates at the school increasing by about 20 percentage points in reading and math. About 30 percent of Brick Church’s students are classified as special education students, almost three times the state average.

At a meeting at Neely’s Bend, ASD Chief of Staff Elliot Smalley urged attendees to focus primarily on LEAD’s record, rather than the ASD’s.

For LEAD, the next step is intense outreach in the Neely’s Bend neighborhood. Before today’s announcement, Reynolds said that LEAD staff members and teachers would spend the months until summer vacation knocking on doors, hosting open houses, and making phone calls.

“Community outreach is not something that occurs in a week,” he said. “It takes time. Families have unique schedules, and it takes months.”

Open houses last week sponsored by LEAD at Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep, were sparsely attended. (Chalkbeat was the sole guest at the open house at Brick Church).

But Reynolds said he predicted LEAD would hear from more parents come January, after the holiday season and end-of-semester exams. At the parent meeting at Neely’s Bend on Dec. 4 about the takeover, all of the parents who spoke were angry that their neighborhood school was being considered for turnaround. Reynolds said he hoped that would change.

“Once people visit our schools, see the staff and students, and talk to existing parents, [LEAD] is a pretty easy sell,” he said.

For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.