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Advocacy groups counter mounting criticism of ASD with year-end rallies

Parents in the advocacy organization Memphis Lift gather at Raleigh Egypt Middle this fall.
Parents in the advocacy organization Memphis Lift gather at Raleigh Egypt Middle this fall.
Mae Yearwood/Memphis Lift

In Memphis, 2015 is ending in much the same way it began: with sparring over the role of the Achievement School District.

On Tuesday, two different organizations held rallies to support the state-run district, which removes low-performing schools from their local districts and usually assigns them to charter operators. In separate rallies, the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options and Memphis Lift urged support for the ASD’s role in improving schools in Memphis.

Their rallies followed — and responded to — mounting criticism of the district in recent weeks, starting with a Vanderbilt University study that concluded that ASD schools’ test scores have not risen as much as those of schools in Shelby County’s own school improvement initiative. The study prompted the Shelby County school board to take a powerful — but likely symbolic — stand and ask Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to bar the ASD from taking over more local schools.

Just days after the Vanderbilt study was released, the ASD announced that it would absorb four more Memphis schools, converting all to charters.

On Monday, local parents and community leaders held a press conference to charge that the district rigged its community input process to ensure that outcome.

Indeed, assessment records collected during the ASD’s community engagement process suggest that the district discounted at least some feedback in making its final decisions. Parents chosen to give feedback told Chalkbeat that they had been told that their discounted comments were based on opinion instead of evidence. From the outset, ASD officials had instructed parent participants to complete their assessments based on the evidence.

At the Tuesday rallies, two groups that formed to galvanize support for efforts to overhaul low-performing schools said nothing should sway Memphis from doing whatever it takes to shake up schools that have not effectively educated children.

One of the rallies was held by Memphis Lift, a group that trains parents to advocate for changes to “priority” schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide. It took special aim at state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a vocal critic of the ASD who participated in Monday’s press conference, and said that he is working against the interests of his North Memphis constituency.

A separate rally, by the local chapter of Black Alliance for Educational Options, criticized the Shelby County school board for calling for the moratorium.

“We are disappointed that the Shelby County School Board recklessly voted in favor of a moratorium that is against the best interest for low-income and working-class black families with children trapped in failing county schools,” said Mendell Grinter, the group’s state director. “Halting the Achievement School District is halting student growth.”

The ASD had mixed results in 2014-15, its third year. Math and science scores rose faster at schools in the ASD than they did on average across the state, while reading scores kept pace with the state, and schools that have been under the ASD’s control for the longest saw the largest gains.

The Tennessee Department of Education has remained firm in its commitment to the ASD in the face of mounting local opposition, maintaining that school turnaround work takes time and patience — a refrain also echoed by researchers and ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic. This month is Barbic’s last before being replaced by a top deputy. He announced earlier this year that he would exit at the end of 2015.

Editor’s note: This story corrects a previous version to show that reading scores have been stagnant statewide.

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