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Parents hear opposing perspectives on proposed Memphis charter conversions

Parents and community members listen to discussion Tuesday evening about the future of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary schools in Memphis.
Parents and community members listen to discussion Tuesday evening about the future of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary schools in Memphis.
Kayleigh Skinner

Felicia Johnson came to a community meeting Tuesday evening to learn about the future of the middle school attended by her two sons. Raleigh Egypt Middle is one of six struggling Memphis schools that could be converted into charters in 2016 under a proposal unveiled last week by the state’s Achievement School District.

But like most parents in attendance, she’d rather the school stay under the control of Shelby County Schools, without state intervention, even though Raleigh Egypt is among Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent of schools academically.

“The principal that’s there now at Raleigh Egypt Middle, he’s only been there a year,” Johnson said. “And in the year he’s been there, he’s made progress.”

Tuesday’s gathering was the first of four community meetings planned during the next week to introduce parents to the ASD’s proposal, seek community input and answer questions about potential conversions. About 200 people attended the forum hosted by the Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a group that advocates for vouchers and charter schools for black children.

The hour-long discussion, preceded by a dinner of pizza and soft drinks provided by BAEO, oscillated between a carefully orchestrated presentation by ASD officials and passionate outbursts by Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love. Love questioned the wisdom of targeting Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary — two schools that she says are improving without state intervention.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions during the meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church.
ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic answers questions during the meeting at Union Grove Baptist Church.
Kayleigh Skinner

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told the crowd that no decision will be made about the schools until December after receiving community input on what’s best for the schools and the students.

“All tonight is about is figuring out what is the best option,” he said. “That’s what the goal is over the next several weeks and months. If that best option is continuing what’s happening, then good. If a school can get better just like it is, then we’re open to that. All we’re trying to do is make the best decision.”

Love argued that the two schools would be better served by the local district because both of their principals are implementing turnaround plans.

“I believe in the teachers, I believe in the principals, I believe in the parents. And I am in full support of Shelby County Schools keeping control of Raleigh Egypt Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary School,” Love said, prompting a standing ovation from most of the crowd.

State BAEO director Mendell Grinter, who served as moderator, told parents that the relationship between the ASD and Shelby County Schools is not a hostile one.

“Our conversation shouldn’t get into Shelby County Public Schools versus the Achievement School District,” Grinter said. “They’re not enemies; oftentimes they’ve worked together. They’re going to have to work together in this process if we’re going to be successful in making sure our kids are getting a quality education.”

Both Grinter and Barbic emphasized the importance of community involvement in determining the best pathway to achieve student improvement. Everyone in attendance received an application to participate in the ASD’s new neighborhood advisory councils, which will have input on which charter operators potentially could be matched with each school. The deadline to apply for the councils is Sept. 21.

Attendees also received information sheets about the ASD, as well as a glossary defining terms such as “charter operator” and “TVAAS.”

The community meetings are part of the ASD’s new community engagement process designed to give parents and other stakeholders more input in important decisions regarding the future of their schools. In previous years, the district hosted community meetings to announce that the schools were being taken from local district control for state-authorized charter conversion, prompting angry outbursts and protests from teachers and parents. This year’s meetings are to discuss the possibility.

“Our job is to not tell you what’s going to happen,” said Barbic, who was also applauded occasionally by the crowd. “Our only goal tonight is for everyone to understand what the process is moving forward.”

Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.
Attendees hold up signs in favor of keeping two Memphis schools in the Shelby County school district.
Kayleigh Skinner

Previous community meetings were held at schools, while this year’s gatherings are in neighborhood churches.

Audience members were given notecards to write down questions and concerns, and Grinter read them aloud. Some wanted to know how the state’s TVAAS model for measuring growth works. Others asked what would happen to their students and teachers if the school is removed from Shelby County Schools and placed under the state’s oversight.

Barbic answered most questions, saying any student at a school chosen for conversion has the option to stay there or transfer to another school. All teachers can re-apply to their school, but the new charter operator has full autonomy when it comes to hiring and firing.

The meeting drew different opinions from people in attendance.

“The answers to the questions are still not clear, but I think what they did tonight was give me an open eye to what’s really going on,” said Johnnie Hatten, a Frayser community member who has been active in the Memphis Lift parent advocacy group. “Nobody disagreed that the scores were not right. The schools are failing our kids.”

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson was more skeptical. “It’s more of a tactic than it is necessarily a meeting for families,” said the Memphis Democrat. “It’s a meeting so that they can say there was a meeting.”

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

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.

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