In Memphis, charter networks face the challenge of connecting with school communities

Representing one of four charter school networks interested in expanding in Memphis, Megan Quaile worked a recent community fair table — ready to tell parents how Green Dot Public Schools can help their students graduate from school prepared for college, leadership and life.

The challenge was getting the opportunity to share that story.

Despite the lure of free food, music, bus transportation, trinkets for the kids, and even neck and shoulder massages for the adults, the turnout was sparse at the Oct. 8 fair sponsored by the Achievement School District at the midtown Salvation Army Kroc Center.

Organizers and participants were undeterred, though.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to get people to see us, to know us, to hear from us,” said Quaile, chief growth officer for Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based network that already operates three Memphis schools and has expressed interest in two more next year.

Community engagement is a key part of the ASD’s new strategy for turning around chronically underperforming schools in neighborhoods where schools are viewed as the hub of community life and the hope for the future of neighborhood children. The state-run ASD, which has proposed to take control of six Shelby County schools and convert them into charters, initiated its new community input process over the summer after state-ordered conversions in previous years were viewed as hostile takeovers by their local communities.

“A neighborhood school is a fundamental part of a community’s character, and big changes should not be made with haste,” said ASD chief of staff Lauren Walker in announcing this month’s community fair. “We want to give parents, teachers, and other community residents the opportunity to hear first hand from the organizations who are interested in converting schools on the priority list about their academic models and vision for robust improvement.”

In Memphis, however, how to engage the school community has been a longstanding conundrum — for the ASD, for Shelby County Schools and for Memphis City Schools before that. Poverty, a high mobility rate, race relations and the fast-changing educational landscape are just a few of the challenges believed to contribute to a culture of mistrust, apathy and confusion over the issues and choices.

Starting its fourth year of operating schools in Memphis, the ASD directed interested charter networks to participate in a six-week process of getting to know the school communities, and vice-versa, where they would like to plant a charter.

This Friday marks the deadline in the first phase of that process, when operators must submit their formal applications to the ASD.

In addition to Green Dot, interested networks include Philadelphia-based Scholar Academies, California-based Aspire Public Schools and the ASD’s own Achievement Schools. Schools eligible for conversion are Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, Hawkins Mill Elementary, Hillcrest High, Kirby Middle, Raleigh Egypt Middle and Sheffield Elementary.

Beyond the community fair, operators have reached out to parents and families at churches and neighborhood groups.

Aspire has found the most interaction with parents at their churches or in front of businesses in the Sheffield Elementary community, said Nickalous Manning, regional director of strategic partnerships for Aspire Public Schools.

“We’ve gained more access to parents organically by meeting them where they are in the neighborhood they’re serving and working in,” said Manning.

ASD officials promoted and outlined the engagement process at four community meetings held in September at churches located near the impacted schools. Most parents attending those meetings said they would prefer that their schools stay under the control of Shelby County Schools.

Stephanie Love, a local school board member who attended the gatherings, said she was disappointed that charter operators didn’t play a more active role in those meetings, which were led by leaders of the ASD and the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children. Some of the gatherings drew more than a hundred people.

“As a charter operator, it’s your job to convince me as a parent that you have the best educational option for my child,” Love said. “Those charter operators need to let the parents know exactly who they are, what their plans are based on the needs of the community, and what they’re going to do to improve the education of our children.”

Once the applications are submitted, the ASD’s neighborhood advisory councils will begin reviewing the applications and meeting with the applicants before completing individual assessments by the end of the November. Those assessments could lead to a school match, which ultimately will be decided by ASD officials in December.

Any applications submitted will be available online for public review, say ASD leaders.

“We’re committed to having those posted online within the next week so that community members, other stakeholders are able to read those applications and submit questions that they may have,” said Anjelica Hardin, director of strategic partnerships.