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Five Memphis schools learn their fate on Friday — here’s what you should know

Kirby Middle School parents, students and supporters learn what it means to be a priority school, including eligibility to be removed by the state from local district control, during a community meeting organized in August by Shelby County Schools.
Kirby Middle School parents, students and supporters learn what it means to be a priority school, including eligibility to be removed by the state from local district control, during a community meeting organized in August by Shelby County Schools.
Kayleigh Skinner

Five low-scoring Memphis schools will find out their futures on Friday, when Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district will announce whether it will add them to its portfolio.

The decisions — which will affect more than 2,700 students and their families, as well as about 180 teachers and staff members — mark the end of three months of community discussions and potentially the beginning of a period of transition for the schools. Schools that join the Achievement School District are entrusted to charter operators, who are charged with improving test scores and authorized to change almost everything about the schools, except for their student populations, in order to achieve that.

Here’s what we know so far — and what the school communities can expect in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The ASD’s efforts to make its takeover process less divisive hinged on community engagement, but that didn’t always pan out. After three years of being viewed as the instigators of hostile state takeovers of neighborhood schools, ASD leaders rolled out a new approach during the summer aimed at building local consensus over what’s in the best interest of students. The process began in September when the state-run district announced which “priority” schools — or schools with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide — it would target this year. In October, three out-of-state charter networks with local ties applied to operate one or more of the schools. And in November, neighborhood advisory councils composed of parents, students and community leaders reviewed the applications, interviewed the charter operators, and toured their other Memphis schools before submitting individual assessments last week of the charter applicants. Like with Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools before that, charter operators generally found it challenging to engage with parents. And along the way, several school communities pushed back against the possibility of joining the ASD, contending that there are better ways to help their schools improve. At protests at Sheffield Elementary and Raleigh Egypt Middle, for example, parents argued that their schools were making enough progress on their own to avoid state intervention. Other parents called for change, however, at a protest Wednesday at Raleigh Egypt Middle organized by Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group.

Ultimately, ASD leaders are making the final call. Neighborhood advisory councils are key to the ASD’s new approach. But it’s the ASD’s six-person leadership team, including outgoing superintendent Chris Barbic and incoming superintendent Malika Anderson, making the final decisions this week. Critics have questioned the degree of influence of the councils, but ASD leaders say assessments by their 35 or so members are a critical component of final deliberations. Those assessments are based on clearly defined criteria that include operator plans for academic interventions for students, parent involvement, teacher hiring policies, and their approach to school culture and safety.

“There’s a lot of math involved in how those rubrics are being translated to a match, or a non-match,” ASD chief of staff Lauren Walker said Tuesday. “The ultimate decision is with the ASD because we have to be accountable for schools that join our district, but we’ve been more transparent than ever on how the decision is being made.”

Here are the eligible schools and the charter operators with whom they could be matched:

Significant players still don’t know what the decisions will be. That includes top administrators with Shelby County Schools and the five school principals, as well as the charter applicants themselves. “We have no idea,” said Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Public Schools in Tennessee, on Tuesday. “Like everyone else, we’re eagerly waiting to hear,” adds Jana Wilcox Lavin, who heads Memphis operations for Philadelphia-based Scholar Academies.

Charter applicants likely will find out at meetings with ASD leaders scheduled for Thursday.

The local district and school communities will learn their fate on Friday. The ASD will share its decisions first with leaders of Shelby County Schools, which in turn will contact administrators at each of the five schools. The ASD will dispatch letters to school families through their students that day — either informing them of the planned conversion or of the ASD’s decision not to proceed. If the conversion is approved, the charter operator will send along an informational letter to both students and faculty. Robocalls also will go out.

Schools that are chosen to join the ASD will begin next week the process toward conversion next fall. Charter operators will start meeting with teachers right away in order to tackle a top task: selecting the educators who will stay with the schools next fall. Operators say every teacher will be encouraged to apply and that every applicant will be interviewed. However, they don’t have to keep teachers on.

“If we’re given the privilege of partnering with Sheffield Elementary School, we would be looking for as many teachers as possible who believe in our mission and vision. We know it’s important to have continuity,” said Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire Public Schools, which hired 14 local district teachers to join its three existing Memphis charter schools under the ASD.

Green Dot’s Quaile says the Los Angeles-based network didn’t have many teachers apply from Fairley High and Wooddale Middle when it became operator of those Memphis schools during the last two years. “But we hope that would improve as people have gotten to know us,” she said, adding that Green Dot offers comparable pay and better benefits than Shelby County Schools.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools has a solid track record of placing its displaced teachers within the local district. “Ninety percent!” said district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.

Friday’s announcement comes at a pivotal time in the ASD’s existence. While the naming of new ASD schools has always been significant, this year’s round of decisions is happening during a period of ASD leadership transition — and as the state-run district is under more scrutiny than ever. Barbic announced in July that he would exit the district at the end of this year, and Anderson, his deputy superintendent, will step into his shoes beginning Jan. 4. With three years of test scores under its belt, the ASD took a blow this week when researchers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education released a study suggesting that Memphis’ low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone than in the ASD. ASD leaders took issue with the findings, saying it’s too early in the turnaround process to draw conclusions on its portfolio of 29 schools, 27 of which are in Memphis. However, given that Barbic, the founding superintendent, set a high bar for the organization to turn around those schools within five years, that counter won’t hold much longer.

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