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ASD targets 12 Memphis schools for possible takeover

Denver Elementary is one of nine schools selected for the Achievement School District's matching process and could be operated by Capstone Education Group.
Denver Elementary is one of nine schools selected for the Achievement School District's matching process and could be operated by Capstone Education Group.
T. Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

The state will seize control of nine chronically-underperforming public schools in Memphis next year and hand them over to privately-run charter school operators, officials with the state-run Achievement School District announced Thursday.

The entire staffs at those schools will be forced to reapply to their jobs, and the chosen charter operators will have the power to change the school’s name, switch out curriculum, and bring in new discipline models, among other things.

The ASD has already decided to hand over South Side Middle School to KIPP Memphis, which runs several charters in Tennessee, and hand Wooddale Middle School and Raleigh Egypt High School to Green Dot Public Schools, based in Los Angeles.

Over the next two months, the ASD will consider whether to give Florida-Kansas Elementary to Scholar Academies or Freedom Prep; Denver Elementary to Capstone Education Group; Airways, American Way and A. Maceo Walker middle schools to YES Prep; Brookmeade Elementary to Libertas; Hawkins Mill Elementary to Libertas or Capstone Education Group; LaRose Elementary to Scholar; and AB Hill Elementary to Freedom Prep. Three of those schools will ultimately stay with the district next year.

The schools named Thursday are virtually all black and all poor and are situated in dilapidated communities dotted with boarded-up homes, burned out store fronts, and littered streets.

The matching process between schools and charter operators in prior years has been emotionally fraught, with community members and teachers accusing administrators of letting outsiders strip away pillars of historically-disenfranchised communities, and pleading for a second chance.

On Tuesday, two days before the list of targeted schools was publicly released, community leaders had already received phone calls from panicked teachers and parents and were scrambling to set up meetings with district officials.

“I’ve never been a proponent of charter schools,” said Ralph White, the pastor of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church, which serves several parents and students from Florida-Kansas Elementary School. “They’ve become quite disruptive.”

White said he would do everything in his power to prevent Florida-Kansas from being taken over by the state after he witnessed several other schools in his community shuttered by district officials, a strategy used by the district to save money and improve student performance. Charter schools with checkered records later moved into those buildings.

The schools named Thursday were among the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state, as measured by standardized test scores. In all, 83 schools fall in the lowest 5 percent category among Tennessee public schools. Almost a third of Memphis’ schools, were on that list and are eligible to be taken over by the state within the next three years.

The state is allowed to seize control of those schools and turn them over to a charter school or directly run them, a provision allowed under the state’s waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

ASD officials said Wednesday they picked the 12 schools based on their recent track record, their feeder pattern, and academic models they thought were needed to turn the schools around.

At Raleigh Egypt High School, on the short list of schools to be taken over for the second consecutive year, half the students dropped out in 2010, according to its 2011 school improvement plan. At LaRose Elementary, a school located just a mile from downtown Memphis, barely 9 percent of students met state English Language Arts standards.

ASD officials said Wednesday that the takeover model they employ is the most appropriate intervention for these kinds of school.

“One of the things we’ve learned …is that the individual students that have been underserved have very unique needs and the intervention that’s required to support them have to be as unique as the students,”said Malika Anderson, the chief portfolio officer of the Achievement School District. “When large districts are focused on centralized decision-making…sometimes schools don’t have the flexibility that they need to make decisions that best serve their students.”

Student groups at some of the schools taken over by the ASD in recent years have made modest gains while others have performed worse than when they were taught by the traditional public schools. At Brick Church College Prep in Nashville, students saw their scores increase by more than 20 percentage points in both math and English last year. But during that same year barely 6 percent of students at Memphis’ Aspire Hanley 2 Elementary School performed at the state’s required math standards, a 16 percent drop from when the school was run by Memphis City Schools.

ASD officials said they will be revising their takeover model based on prior experiences and are considering new ways to better engage with community stakeholders, and to determine which charter schools have earned the right to expand.

Earlier this week, ASD and Shelby County Schools officials held meetings with the staff at each of the 12 schools on the intervention list to explain the matching and subsequent takeover process. Meanwhile, parents received letters and phone calls from the district.

Over the next several weeks, a series of community meetings will take place between charter operators, teachers, parents and students, a sort of get-to-know-you process.

Several teachers at the targeted schools said Wednesday they were worried about their employment status and knew little about the charter operators.

Parents at the schools described drastic changes in recent months, including entirely new teaching staffs, changed class schedules, and principals abruptly resigning in the middle of the year. Rumors had been floating in recent days of a looming takeover.

Most parents seemed pleased with the education their children had received and said more change would force them to leave. Teachers tutored students over the weekend and seemed engaged and committed, they said.

“They’ll lose a whole lot of kids if they get rid of these teachers,” said Margaret White who had two children graduate from Florida-Kansas Elementary and two currently attending. “That’ll hurt so many kids here.”

A few parents and students complained of discipline problems and the feeling that their school wasn’t getting its fair share of resources. Change could be good, they said.

“No matter who is running the school, parents have to do what they have to do,” said Toreko Rowell at Airways Middle School as he reviewed his daughter’s report card, full of A’s and B’s.

Final takeover decisions are expected in December.

Tajuana Cheshier contributed to this story.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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