State turnaround district ready to hand off Memphis middle school to charter

Tennessee’s turnaround district announced plans Thursday to relinquish its operation of a Memphis middle school to a local charter network that already operates two state-run schools.

Westside Achievement Middle School has been run directly by the Achievement School District but would be operated by Frayser Community Schools beginning next school year. After the handoff, the school will remain under the oversight of the state-run district.

The announcement comes just a week after ASD leaders floated the idea to parents, students, and community members during a meeting at the Frayser school. The decision to move forward comes after “receiving tremendous community and stakeholder support” of the proposed transition, according to the district’s press release.

But the change isn’t a done deal. Frayser Community Schools still must submit an application by Feb. 28 that would have to be approved by the Tennessee Department of Education. The application must outline its operation plans, including its plan to “strengthen and build the academic success of the school, to recruit and develop teachers, and to establish the climate and culture of the school,” according to the release.

Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent, shared the state’s intentions Thursday while speaking to the Frayser Exchange Club. Having a new operator for Westside Middle makes sense, she told the group, because Frayser Community Schools’ portfolio already includes a high school and a middle school, while the ASD’s four other direct-run schools are all elementary schools.

“This development allows us the chance to refine our focus at the elementary level for the schools we directly manage while giving FCS a chance to lead a middle school in Frayser that can feed into its existing high school in Frayser,” she said.

Frayser Community Schools was founded in 2014 by Bobby White, a former Memphis principal who started with one high school: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the state-run district.

“We are excited by this opportunity and grateful for the chance to serve at this level,” said White, who was principal of Westside nine years ago under when the former Memphis City Schools.  

Bobby White, who founded Frayser Community Schools in 2014, wants his charter organization to be the next leader of Westside Middle School. (Caroline Bauman)

Since Westside was taken over by the state in 2013, the school has struggled with lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. Enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, and the school lost 18 percent of students just this year.

White has grown the Frayser network in part because of his ability to increase enrollment. MLK Prep has grown from 550 students in 2014 to 625 students this year. But its academics have been slower to improve. Last school year, 65 percent of its students scored below grade level in English and 78 percent in math, according to state data.

White acknowledged that growing from one to three schools in two years is a big lift, but he told the community last month that his organization is up for the challenge.

“I wanted us to be a turnaround organization, to take over existing schools and truly turn them around,” White said. “That takes time and a lot of work, but we’re here for it.”

Clarification: Feb. 1, 2018: This story has been updated to clarify that Westside Middle would remain under the oversight of the Achievement School District if operations are transferred to Frayser Community Schools.