State denies Memphis appeal to take Geeter K-8 off watchlist, but the school will remain under local control for now

A low-performing Memphis school, flagged for possible takeover by the state-run Achievement School District, will remain under district control for now.

But the state Department of Education denied an appeal from Shelby County Schools to take Geeter K-8 off the state’s list of low-performing schools, saying the recent test scores at the Whitehaven school weren’t good enough to warrant less scrutiny from the state.

Superintendent Joris Ray said because the school added elementary grades last year, “the population the school served significantly changed.”

In an email to Ray dated Aug. 14, Mike Hardy, the state’s chief strategy and data officer said: “These schools still have the opportunity to exit based on their performance… Even if we considered the school for Priority Exit, it would not meet the exit criteria.”

Fewer than 5% of Geeter students scored proficient or higher in English this past spring on the state’s annual exam known as TNReady. In math, 6% of students scored proficient or higher.

Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of the Empowerment Zone, addressed Manor Lake Elementary parents in March 2018 about upcoming changes. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Because of the languishing test results, the school was moved last year from the district’s turnaround effort, known as the Innovation Zone, into a neighborhood-specific program known as the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone.

At the same time, students from nearby Manor Lake Elementary merged into the former middle school after a group of neighborhood parent leaders suggested the idea to head off a potential closure that would scatter the elementary students.

Beverly Davis, one of the parents who suggested the merger, said the state’s denial worries her. The Whitehaven turnaround program was created to stave off more state takeovers in Memphis, where the state has concentrated its school improvement efforts with little success. Recent research has shown schools in the state-run district are no better off than schools that received no intervention. Test results in the Empowerment Zone have improved faster than the local district average, especially in math and high school English.

The state is making some concessions during the school’s transition. But this year’s scores were still not high enough to catapult Geeter K-8 off the priority list.

“I don’t know what else they want from us,” Davis told Chalkbeat. “They’re doing better in the Empowerment Zone than they have in a long, long time.”

Tequilia Taylor has a daughter at Geeter in first grade. She said she was “well aware” the state has been putting pressure on the district to improve the school. She thinks Shelby County Schools is “disorganized and needs a bit of work,” but is satisfied with her daughter’s academic progress at Geeter.

“It’s the second year. I think there should be more observation before a state takeover,” she said, adding she hopes the elementary students will not have to endure another change because of test scores from the middle school.