Dueling protests over Raleigh Egypt Middle School’s future raise questions about how much progress is enough

Test scores are up at Raleigh Egypt Middle School. But it’s still in danger of state intervention, prompting demonstrations about the school this week.

On Tuesday, dozens of community members — spearheaded by a Shelby County Schools board member and state Rep. Antonio Parkinson — gathered outside Raleigh Egypt to call attention to the gains that are already underway.

On Wednesday, parents organized by Memphis Lift, a group that organizes parents to support turnaround efforts in priority schools, held a press conference of their own to argue that more dramatic changes are needed to boost student performance.

Raleigh-Egypt parents and community members protested against the ASD on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Antonio Parkinson) (Provided by Antonio Parkinson)

The competing demonstrations show that tensions remain high over the state-run district’s approach to overhauling low-performing schools, even after the ASD changed its process to involve communities more. They also highlight ongoing ambivalence about the state’s way of measuring school improvement.

The school is one of five in Memphis that could be added to the ASD this year. The state-run district is permitted by law to absorb any school whose scores are in the lowest 5 percent statewide.

There’s no question that students at Raleigh Egypt Middle have low test scores. Just 22 percent of students met the state’s proficiency bar in math and 15 percent in reading this year, rates that lag significantly behind the rest of Shelby County and the state averages.

But the state’s own measures of growth suggest that the school is making significant strides — larger than many other schools. Raleigh Egypt’s reading scores grew as much as expected and its math scores increased by much more than they were expected to, based on students’ demographics and past performance.

Those scores led it narrowly to miss a new bar, established in state law last year, to avoid ASD intervention. That law said that schools with an overall growth score of 4 or 5 (on the state’s 5-point scale) could not be added to the state-run district. Raleigh Egypt earned 5’s in math and science but only a 3 in reading, leading to an overall score of 3.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, the Democratic legislator from Memphis who wrote the new law, said she thought Raleigh Egypt fell within the spirit of the law she designed.

“I know the law we passed last year is 4 or 5, but there is a gray area. We need to look at the gray area. They are killing it in math,” she said about the school. “When you see that Level 5 TVAAS [in math], I think you’re on the brink of great things. I’d like to see them stay with the local school district.”

Shelby County Schools has taken steps to change Raleigh Egypt’s trajectory. The school got a new principal last year, Ronnie Mackin, who previously led Memphis’s Kingsbury Middle School as it hurtled from the bottom tier in the state to the top. (Mackin was also on the ASD’s founding team of administrators.) Parkinson said he had also helped to line up support for the school from local churches and corporate partners.

Similar changes helped propel Raleigh Egypt High School forward and resulted in the school coming off of the ASD’s intervention list this year. (Community members protested the ASD’s plans for that school, too.) With more time, the same thing could happen at the middle school, Parkinson said.

“We put all of these things in place,” he said. “We don’t want the ASD to drop a grenade in the middle of that and disrupt it.”

The middle school went from Level 1 to Level 3 on the state’s growth measure, Parkinson added. “I don’t know what else you want us to do to show that we’re on the right trajectory.”

The parents who protested outside the school today say quicker change is needed. And ASD officials say parents, not elected officials, are the best people to determine what changes need to be made. The district has convened a committee of parents to evaluate a plan by the charter operator Scholar Academies to overhaul the school, which would remove it from the local district’s oversight.

In a statement Tuesday, outgoing ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic accused the people who oppose the ASD’s intervention of also opposing other efforts to improve low-performing schools, including Shelby County Schools’ own Innovation Zone initiative. Schools that join the iZone get additional resources and a longer day but remain within Shelby County Schools.

It is unfortunate that some elected officials—with no children in the schools involved—hesitate to give … control to interested parents and community members,” Barbic said. “These are the same elected officials who not only oppose the positive work happening in the Achievement School District, but are also fighting against the positive work of Superintendent [Dorsey] Hopson and his team courageously leading the iZone efforts.”

Parkinson rejected that characterization, saying that he would welcome Raleigh Egypt’s addition to the Innovation Zone.

“I support what Dorsey Hopson is doing,” he said. “The iZone performance is kicking the crap out of the ASD’s performance. Who wouldn’t support that?”

Parkinson also said he did not oppose the ASD’s intervention in local schools in principle. But he questioned why Raleigh Egypt would be overhauled when there exist schools with similarly low test scores that aren’t yet on the upswing.

“If your agenda is education, it seems like you would focus on the children where the need is the most,” Parkinson said.