Neighborhood councils to consider state-proposed charters for six Memphis schools

Alicia Tomlinson already was concerned whether her son was getting an adequate education when she learned that his was among six Memphis schools targeted for state takeover because of poor academic performance.

So Tomlinson, 41, applied to join a community panel that state officials say will help determine the future of Hawkins Mill Elementary School. The state-run Achievement School District proposes to remove Hawkins Mill from the control of Shelby County Schools and convert it to an ASD-operated charter school.

“I am a strong believer that I should make every effort to see what other options I have to make sure my son gets the best education,” said Tomlinson, whose son, Jacobi, is a first-grader at Hawkins Mill. “I wanted to see for myself what the ASD has to offer my son.”

Tomlinson is expected to learn early this week whether she has been selected to serve on one of four neighborhood advisory councils created by the ASD as part of its new process to involve parents, community leaders and other local stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The councils are a critical component in the district’s new community engagement initiative, rolled out during the summer after ASD officials acknowledged numerous missteps when taking over other Memphis schools during its first three years of operations.

“We heard loud and clear from all of our stakeholders that there are certain questions that we want the operators to be able to answer to know if they’re going to be a strong fit for those schools,” said Anjelica Hardin, director of strategic partnerships for the ASD.

ASD leaders say the need for state intervention at Hawkins Mill is clear, while leaders with Shelby County Schools have touted existing plans to help the school improve without state intervention.

Last year, only 16 percent of Hawkins Mill students were proficient or advanced in reading language arts, almost 37 percent in math, and nearly 28 percent in science. The school is on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, allowing the ASD to intervene under state law.

In previous years, the state’s school turnaround district announced which schools would be taken over and quickly introduced their new charter operators. For the most part, the community was approached after the decision already had been made. Under the ASD’s new process, parents and community members serving on the councils interact with interested charter operators throughout the fall and review operator applications, scheduled for submission by Oct. 23.

“We want people to know that this is really a community decision that is a definite priority area for the leadership team,” Hardin said, “and that folks really know this is a big opportunity to be engaged, because literally the decision is in your hands.”

Critics have questioned how much power the councils actually have, however. ASD leaders will make the final decision in early December, after council members submit individual assessments of charter applicants. If the process does not produce a match between a school and an operator, the school will remain with Shelby County Schools, according to ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron.

ASD-led training for selected council members is scheduled to begin next week.

The ASD aims to have 10 members on each of its four councils, half of them parents. Of the 190 applications received, 85 came from parents, Aaron said. Parents, in particular, had been encouraged to apply at numerous community meetings held at the schools over the last two months by leaders both with the ASD and Shelby County Schools.

Some stakeholders have questioned whether the resulting pool of applicants was sufficient to adequately represent school communities.

Patricia Merriweather, principal of Sheffield Elementary, another school targeted for takeover, said Sheffield includes a large percentage of Hispanic students and English language learners. “I’m OK with the process as long as it is fair,” Merriweather said. “They promised me there would be people on the panel who have been in Sheffield.”

Tomlinson is one of three parents who applied to serve on a council for Hawkins Mill.

“I was a bit taken aback that there wasn’t more parents,” Tomlinson said about the subsequent interview process. “Parental participation is the weakest link that should be the strongest presence.”

Going forward, Tomlinson said she has no preference on whether Hawkins Mill remains with the Memphis-based district or joins the state-run district, as long as her son gets the best education possible.

“I’m just a mom,” she said, “(but) I appreciate the way they’re involving us.”