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State-run district says final list of schools reflects community input, needs

The Achievement School District (ASD) announced Thursday a final list of six failing schools that will become part of the state-run district next year and the charter operators who will be tasked with boosting their test scores.

After a months-long planning and community engagement process, the list of schools that will be part of the ASD looks different than it did in July, when a short-list of schools that might be taken over by the district was released.

“This has been a process,” Chris Barbic said. “It wasn’t a nice, neat, tidy package,” but reflects what the district learned about what’s in the best interest of students and communities.

Coleman Elementary will be run by Aspire Public Schools, a California-based school that already runs two schools in the ASD; Spring Hill Elementary by Promise Academy, a locally-run charter school; Westwood Elementary by Freedom Prep Academy, also locally-run, which was the only Memphis charter school recognized as a “reward school”; Frayser High School by Frayser Community Schools, a new charter operator that will be run by a former Memphis City Schools principal; and Fairley High School by Green Dot, a California-based charter operator opening its first school in Memphis.

KIPP Memphis, which already runs six schools in the city, will start a new middle school serving 6th graders that will also be part of the ASD. It will be housed in a Memphis school that has been empty for several years.

Due to a combination of academic, logistical, and community-based reasons, South Side Middle, Denver Elementary, and Carver High Schools, which were initially on the short-list of schools to be taken over by the ASD, will not join the ASD next year.

The 4,500-student ASD currently runs 15 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville, and plans to continue to expand. It takes over schools ranked in the bottom five percent in the state in student achievement, with the goal of making those schools some of the most successful in the state. The majority of those schools are in Memphis.

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. The ASD authorizes and oversees independent charter operators to run most of its schools. This fall’s process involved determining which charter schools should be matched with which schools on the short-list.

“It isn’t just about getting off the list [of “priority schools” ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state],” Barbic said. “It’s about creating schools where every parent would be proud to send their child.”

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Letters will go home with children and to those in schools today, Barbic said. Tomorrow, charter school leaders will be in the schools they are slated to run to meet with teachers and talk with staff.

A spokeswoman for the Shelby County district said that administrators will reach out to parents and teachers to inform them of their options during its enrollment process.

The charter school leaders have not been talking with the schools’ current staff so far, said Bobby White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. White said he planned to have meetings with teachers this week, and parent meetings next week.

A Shelby County Schools spokesperson said it had worked to ensure that there was “appropriate coordination” between the ASD and current principals.

The ASD’s final pairings aligned with recommendations made by its Achievement Advisory Councils, or AACs, of community members, except for one: The AAC had recommended that Fairley not be placed with a charter operator due to concerns from the community, and that Carver High School be run by Green Dot.

Barbic said that the Shelby County school board’s decision to remove Carver from a list of schools to close and to merge it with a nearby  middle school influenced the ASD’s decision to match Fairley with Green Dot instead of Carver.

“I’m still jumping up and down,” said AAC member Mitchell Sadler about the district’s decision to keep Carver open.

Frayser Community Schools leader White, who attended Frayser High School, said he hoped his school would be “the next YES! Prep, the next KIPP,” citing two well-regarded national charter operators – though he said his organization would remain focused on the Frayser neighborhood in Memphis where most ASD schools are located.

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Today’s conference took place at Streets Ministries, a community center dedicated to helping some of Memphis’ most troubled youths. ASD officials, charter school leaders, teachers, AAC members, and other members of the community were in attendance. Administrators from Shelby County Schools did not attend.

At least two dozen men involved with the Blight Patrol cheered loudly when it was announced that Frayser High School will be taken over by a well-known alum.

During the half hour-long conference, a parent, ASD staff, and former Shelby County school board member Sara Lewis acknowledged concerns and anxieties that arose as the ASD planned to take over and described overcoming those concerns by building relationships and sharing a vision for the future of the schools and their students.

Teresena Wright, a parent whose daughter attends an Aspire school within the ASD, said that although she had concerns about the changes that came along with the state-run district initially, she said she was “at peace” and that her daughter, who is blind, is thriving.