Six Memphis schools chosen for possible charter conversion by state turnaround district

Targeting Memphis to expand its school turnaround footprint for a fourth straight year, the state’s Achievement School District on Thursday named six academically underperforming schools for possible charter conversion in 2016.

All six chosen schools — which rank academically in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools — have one or more charter operators who have expressed interest in potential conversions. Those operators already manage schools in Memphis, have been approved for expansion by the ASD, and must formally apply by Oct. 23 for a potential match.

Stakeholders for 10 Memphis priority schools eligible for state intervention had been waiting anxiously to learn their possible fate. However, only six received letters of interest from approved charter operators who are authorized by the state to expand. The four priority schools eliminated from the process this year include Carver, Douglass, Northside and Westwood high schools.

For the state-run ASD, Thursday’s announcement unleashes its public effort to match the right schools with the right charter operators and to build consensus within local communities that the time is right to shake up chronically struggling neighborhood schools. It also steps up the district’s new five-month community engagement process designed to diffuse local mistrust that led to heated protests in previous years from residents angry about state intervention in neighborhood schools.

For local stakeholders, the possibility of charter conversion sparks a year of uncertainty about how teachers, students and the local district might be impacted. Schools that move from the purview of Shelby County Schools to the state-run district undergo massive overhauls in faculty, curriculum, policies and protocols, sometimes even getting a new school name.

Officials shared the news Wednesday and Thursday with faculty and staff at the six affected schools and will hold a series of town forums beginning next week to notify and engage parents, according to ASD officials.

Unlike in previous years, matches between priority schools and an interested approved operator won’t be automatic. A centerpiece of the ASD’s new community engagement process is the creation of neighborhood advisory councils that will review charter applications and community input. Local and state education leaders have encouraged parents, students and community members to apply online by Sept. 21 to participate in the councils.

“… We are working to elevate parent voice and ensure they are the ones leading this process,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said in a news release.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who spoke with parents and community members in August at a series of district-sponsored community meetings at priority schools, emphasized the importance of local engagement Thursday as the ASD unveiled the list of schools that may be removed from local district control.

“This is always an emotional process, so it was important to us to engage parents in these school communities early to ensure they know about their options within Shelby County Schools,” Hopson said in a statement. “We care a great deal about all of the students, teachers and staff in every one of these schools and will continue to support them and work aggressively to increase student achievement as they are going through the ASD’s community input process.”

Shelby County Schools — which has lost the most schools, students and funding statewide to ASD control — initiated its community meetings to inform parents what being a priority school means and discuss the potential for state intervention. The meetings were held in auditoriums and cafeterias of five of the six schools named by the ASD on Thursday and were attended by parents, teachers and community members. Many parents and students asked questions about what could happen going forward and expressed frustration about the lack of communication in previous years.

School leaders encouraged parents to stay involved and apply to be part of the ASD’s neighborhood advisory councils.

“We don’t know what the ASD is going to do different, but I would strongly suggest to you parents to ask them,” board member Stephanie Love told parents at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary. “Don’t wait until after it has happened and begin to ask those questions.”

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Barbic emphasized that the future of the six schools is not set in stone and that decisions won’t come until December. “This is an open engagement period, and no final decisions have been made about these schools,” he said.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who spearheaded legislation this year aimed at giving improving priority schools opportunity to stay with their local districts, urged the ASD to be transparent in the process that may lead to removal of a school from local district control.

“I think the important thing is to make sure the community is informed and engaged instead of being told this is how it’s going to be,” Akbari said Thursday. “Last year, there was not a positive reaction from the community that influenced the operators who were scheduled to come in. It creates a lack of trust in the process.”

While five of the six eligible schools could potentially be matched with a charter operator, the ASD is considering operating Hawkins Mill Elementary itself because of improvement in state test scores at its five current schools in the Frayser community of Memphis, where Hawkins Mill is also located.

“Last year, our achievement schools had a really solid year,” Barbic said. “We put ourselves through the same performance framework that we put our operators through, and we are considering adding another direct-run school to the mix.”

If all six tapped schools come under state control, the ASD will oversee 33 schools next year in Memphis, which has Tennessee’s highest concentration of underperforming schools and has become a battleground for state, local and philanthropic school improvement efforts.

“There were 59 schools in Memphis on the priority list when we started this work in 2012,” Barbic said. “Between the ASD, the (Shelby County Schools) iZone, and other Shelby County turnaround efforts, next year there will be an intervention plan in place for every school on the priority list in Memphis.