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Community meetings begin this week over Memphis schools proposed for charter conversion

Joanne Weiss
Hawkins Mill Elementary School is one of six Memphis schools that the Tennessee Achievement School District has proposed to convert to a state-authorized charter school.
Kayleigh Skinner

Community meetings kick off this week in Memphis to discuss six chronically struggling schools that the state proposes to take from Shelby County Schools and convert into charters in an effort to them around academically.

The state’s Achievement School District last week unveiled its list of schools for possible conversion in 2016, as well as naming four charter operators who have expressed an interest in applying to operate one or more of the schools. A final decision on the schools’ future will come in December following months of community discussion and input.

“The purpose of the community meetings is to have a conversation with parents in the six conversion-eligible schools about how the conversion process works, how parents can get involved in the process, answer questions parents may have and to hear their concerns,” ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron said Monday.

The four community meetings are expected to generate the first general public feedback about the proposed conversions since the ASD’s announcement last week and should serve as a barometer on whether parents and families are open to charter conversions, or angry that the state could take their neighborhood schools away from the local district to come under the oversight of the ASD. Last year, the ASD’s takeover of eight Memphis schools sparked angry outbursts and protests at community forums held at the impacted schools.

This year, the ASD has overhauled its intervention process to emphasize community engagement and increase involvement by parents and families whose children attend the schools. The meetings are being held at neighborhood churches instead of schools and are being hosted the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a national group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children. (See the meeting schedule and locations below.)

“Parents know their children best, and we believe families and community members are served best when they are fully informed and empowered with accurate information about their local education options,” said Mendell Grinter, state BAEO director, in a press release. “It’s through open dialogue and collaboration between parents, education and community leaders that the best possible outcomes for students may be achieved.”

A student addresses Shelby County School officials during their Aug. 31 presentation at Kirby Middle School.
A student addresses Shelby County School officials during their Aug. 31 presentation at Kirby Middle School.
Kayleigh Skinner

The meetings come only weeks after Shelby County Schools hosted its own gatherings at five of the six schools, which are eligible for state intervention because they are on the state’s list of priority schools performing academically in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. Local district leaders organized those meetings to explain what it means to be on the priority list and the process ahead if the ASD targeted those schools for takeover. They invited parents and community members to ask questions and encouraged them to actively participate in the process that could determine the future of their neighborhood schools.

Grinter said the upcoming meetings will “facilitate a deeper discussion” about the schools’ potential for conversion.

“We feel like in other meetings, parents just aren’t getting the information they need to know. It’s been one-sided,” he told Chalkbeat on Monday.

Representatives from both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District will be in attendance at the next four meetings, and parents will have the chance to ask questions and hear answers from both sides — a platform that hasn’t been provided in previous meetings hosted by the two districts.

The ASD’s new community engagement process was unveiled during the summer and includes the creation of neighborhood advisory councils that will review charter applications and community input. The deadline is Sept. 21 for interested parents, students and community members to apply online to participate.

“The decisions made throughout this process have a direct impact on school communities and it is vital that parents are involved in every stage of conversion,” Aaron said. “It’s impossible to do this without their participation”.

Here are the schools named for possible conversion and the schedule of community meetings planned to discuss them:

Hawkins Mill Elementary and Raleigh Egypt Middle schools — Tuesday, Sept. 15, 6-8 p.m., Union Grove Baptist Church, 2285 Frayser Blvd.

Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools Thursday, Sept. 17, 6-8 p.m., The Place of Outpouring at Olivet Fellowship Full Gospel Baptist Church, 4450 Knight Arnold Road

Hillcrest High School — Saturday, Sept. 19, 12-2 p.m., Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, 3890 Millbranch Road

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School — Tuesday, Sept. 22, 6-8 p.m., Mount Austin Missionary Baptist Church, 1178 Breedlove St.

BAEO is providing bus service to transport parents and community members who live more than a mile from the location, as well as meals for families who attend each meeting.

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