Achievement School District places two Nashville middle schools on turnaround list

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Madison Middle Prep is one of the schools Achievement School District officials and officials from LEAD Public Schools are considering turning around.
The Achievement School District Thursday selected two Nashville middle schools for possible intervention next year, and will decide Dec. 12 which of them to take over.
Neely’s Bend Middle Prep and Madison Middle Prep are located less than four miles apart in the section of the northeastern part of the city called Madison, a community once home to country music stars like Patsy Cline and Earl Scruggs, and now populated largely by  Nashville’s growing working and middle class.
Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which includes the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The Achievement School District is meant to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 20.
Teachers at the schools learned earlier this week that either Neely’s Bend or Madison will be operated by LEAD Public Schools, a local charter management organization, next school year. Which school the ASD will choose to hand over to LEAD depends on input from community meetings at each school on Dec. 4.  ASD officials will announce their decision a week later, on Dec. 12.
The ASD already has one Nashville school under its control. It partnered with LEAD to turnaround Brick Church Middle School in 2012. That time, the decision was made without public meetings between charter officials, parents and teachers, which ASD officials call part of the “matching process.”
The matching process for potential ASD schools in Memphis began more than a month ago, where district officials intended to expand by 12 schools in the 2015-16 school year. Unlike in years past, they have been met with organized opposition from teachers and parents who say that the  “matching” process is confusing, and disruptive. Vocal critics at the community meetings have pointed to the ASD’s  mixed track record with the first two waves of schools it took over in Memphis.  Last month officials announced a list of 12 schools it was considering turning around in Memphis.
A week after the names of the schools were released, two charter organizations, Freedom Prep and KIPP, withdrew from the process. On Wednesday, the California-based charter organization Green Dot followed suit, citing lack of community support.
Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, said that the matching process in Nashville is shorter than the one in Memphis because the ASD is dealing with fewer schools and operators. He said a week allowed “ample opportunity” for district officials to make up their minds.
Because of the limited number of organizations authorized by the ASD to open schools in Nashville, the district’s expansion in the city has been less dramatic than in Memphis. Currently, the ASD has one other school in the capital, which is also operated by LEAD Public Schools.
As of now, LEAD Public Schools is one of only three charter groups that the ASD has authorized to take over or open schools in Nashville. The other two operators, KIPP and Rocketship, are not focusing on opening more schools with the ASD at this time, Smalley said.LEAD currently operates four schools in Nashville: LEAD Academy, Brick Church, Cameron College Prep Academy, and LEAD Prep Southeast.“It’s just a question of putting quality over scale and working with that charter operator and making sure they’re growing at the right pace, the pace that’s right for them,” Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief operating officer, told Chalkbeat in September.

Smalley said that Nashville might see  more charter operators partnering  with the ASD in coming years. The ASD will approve new operators in June.

Although the ASD has a mixed record in Memphis,  its Nashville school has done well. Brick Church College Prep saw the largest test score gains in the ASD this year, with the passing rates at the school increasing by about 20 percentage points in reading and math. About 30 percent of Brick Church’s students are classified as special education students, almost three times the state average.

When LEAD was matched with Brick Church two years ago there was no public input process, and the timeline was shorter. LEAD learned it was taking over Brick Church in March, and began with their first group of fifth graders in August — a span of just four months.
LEAD phases into schools, meaning it takes over only one grade level at a time, and shares a building with the school it is meant to replace . Chris Reynolds, LEAD’s CEO,  said co-location, as the practice is called, is a benefit for both the new charter grades and the school being phased out. In both schools the charter organization has gone into, the test scores of students in the grades still operated by the traditional school have seen a boost. Both Cameron College Prep, LEAD’s school, and Cameron Middle School, the traditional public school being phased out, were among the fastest improving in the state.

Reynolds said that he hoped the months between now and the beginning of school in August would allow for collaboration between teachers at the existing schools and LEAD. Teachers from LEAD’s schools will be visiting Madison Middle Prep today to talk to teachers, said Stephen Henry, the president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He attended a meeting held by the ASD for faculty at Madison.

Christy King, a sixth grade English teacher at Madison, said that, after attending the meeting, she was frustrated that ASD officials were discounting the gains made last year under a new principal. Madison’s passing rates went up 3.4 percentage points in math and less than one point in English.

“We didn’t grow as much as we should, but we’re moving up,” King said. She also said changes principal Michelle Demps began implementing at Madison last year will have a bigger impact on test scores in the spring.

Demps recruited new teachers to the school, and told some teachers they were not a good fit for Madison — something that principals rarely do, King said. She also has given gave teachers more time for professional development, has facilitated lesson planning in teams to increase collaboration and peer-learning, and has brought in new writing and reading programs.

“We feel like last year was really our first year with a true turnaround middle school principal leading the school,” King said. “She knows her stuff, she knows what’s current, she knows how to lead.”

But Barbic said he hopes Nashville’s matching process will be less teacher-centric, and more parent-centric than Memphis’s.
“I feel like there are times where we didn’t have enough parents in the room in the same way [as teachers],” he said. “That’s something we really want to try to work to improve. While this is disruptive for teachers, and we understand that disruption, at the end of the day, we’re serving families.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Brick Church’s average scores went up more than 20 percent. The percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced increased by more than 20 percent.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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