Tennessee

Community advisory board recommends charters for newest ASD schools

A community advisory group for the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) recommended Monday which charter school operators should take over four of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

The group’s recommendations, based on discussions with the charter schools and input from parents and students, will help determine the ASD administration’s plans for seven Memphis schools, set to be announced this Thursday.

At stake is the future of those schools, all ranked in the bottom five percent of the state academically and situated in high-poverty, predominantly black neighborhoods. For years, they have been run by Memphis and Shelby County Schools, but a 2010 law allows state officials to remove the schools from the district, replace their leadership and staff, and let the new leaders set their budgets and curricula in hopes of improving their performance. Most of the schools in the ASD will be run by charter schools operators, which are publicly funded but operated independently.

The ASD is being closely watched by states around the country interested in turning around low-performing schools. But some community  members and teachers have described its intervention as invasive, disruptive and ineffective.

The AAC recommended that Carver High School be run by Green Dot, Springhill Elementary be matched with Promise Academy, Coleman Elementary be matched with Aspire, Westwood be matched with Freedom Prep and Fairley High School not be matched with a charter operator.

The AAC’s recommendations are not final. The ASD will announce final pairings this coming Thursday.

“We realized there’s a need to get authentic input about decisions about which charter partner would turn around which school,” said Margo Roen, the new schools director for the state-run district. She said the process was inspired by community engagement practices in New Orleans and Denver.

The AAC’s recommendations outline why each “match” was made, but also lay out potential concerns for each site, including declining enrollment at Carver and lack of transportation options for Springhill students.

“The needs of each school are different,” said Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff. “And operators have different preferences.”

Two schools, Denver and South Side, were on the list at the outset of the process but not matched to any operator. Artesian Community Schools, which had been in conversations to run South Side, will not run a school in the 2014-15 school year.

“It’s about making the right decision, no matter what people may have invested,” Smalley said.

Some matches were determined before last night: Frayser Community Schools will run Frayser High, and Gestalt will run Wooddale Middle School. 

The all-volunteer AAC, whose members serve six-month terms, was designed to communicate community concerns to the ASD, to explain ASD policies to parents and community members, and to recommend which school should be run by whom. 

“We’re a liaison between the community, charter school, and neighborhood,” said member Omari Faulkner. “Once it’s announced that a school will be taken over, we want to hear, what do they feel and how are they going through the process.”

This is the ASD’s second year running schools. In September, nine schools were put on a shortlist for take-over. The district and the AAC ran an informational fair and hosted a series of community meetings and conversations over the course of the fall. Parents had the opportunity to learn about the charter operators’ curriculum, extracurricular activities and philosophies.

The matching process surfaced concerns about schools’ futures even as it brought the schools a step closer to being under the auspices of the ASD.

A parent at South Side Middle said she feared the ASD was out to privatize schools and that beloved teachers would lose jobs. Many of the district’s teachers and top officials come to Memphis from elsewhere in the country.

A parent from Wooddale Middle School submitted a petition to the Shelby County School Board last month saying she and some 600 other parents did not want their school to be taken over by the state.

“For a lot of educators, it can come as a shock,” Faulkner said. “They’re often wary of the takeover model. Sometimes that can trickle down to students, parents, community leaders.  This is a very new process.  We don’t work for the ASD, but we’re here to provide that bridge when they have a question.”

At Fairley, community members disputed the test scores that landed the school on the state priority list in the first place, said Katrice Peterson, a member of the AAC. The school’s new strategic plan and principal were cited as reasons to not match it with any charter schools this year.

At Carver, “the first thoughts were, do we keep the name, do we keep the traditions, our mascots? Will we still be Carver?” said Mitchell Saddler, a member of the AAC. The school’s low enrollment means it might be closed by Shelby County Schools if it is not taken over by the ASD.

Megan Quaile, the vice president of expansion for Green Dot, a California-based charter operator planning to open its first school in Memphis, said, “I like the concept of a lot of engaging the community and having them really understand us and us understand them before any final decisions are made.”

Both AAC members and charter operators complained that they weren’t allowed into the schools to get a better idea of what a typical school day is like.

A spokesperson for Shelby County Schools didn’t respond to questions about the members’ access to the schools.

The AAC held many of their meetings at nearby community centers and churches.

AAC member Saddler said navigating conversations with those currently in schools, whose jobs will be affected by the change, was tricky. As of last week, he had not discussed the plans for Carver’s future with its current principal: “I have no idea how to start the conversation.”

Representatives from the affected schools declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the topic.

The ASD runs 15 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville, but plans to run more than 50. Its goal is to improve schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state until they are in the top 25 percent.

Of the 83 schools in Tennessee eligible for takeover, 69 were in Memphis.

Correction: The article originally misstated the name of Wooddale Middle School.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede