Carla Oliver-Harris was bewildered by a phone call late this spring from Shelby County Schools saying that her son’s high school was closing and that she should enroll her son at Whitehaven High School instead.
“I thought it was going to be a charter school,” the Memphis mom said about Hillcrest High, which will transition to a charter this fall under the state-run Achievement School District.
Oliver-Harris’ confusion only grew when a note on her son’s end-of-year report card said he now would be zoned to Mitchell High, another school in South Memphis, even though he can walk to Hillcrest and was told transportation wasn’t guaranteed either to Whitehaven or Mitchell.
“We were a bit confused and didn’t know where he was going to go,” she said.
It wasn’t until her son’s football coach called a few weeks later that she learned her neighborhood school will still open on Aug. 8, but will be run now by Green Dot Public Schools. The California-based operator was authorized last year to convert Hillcrest to a charter as part the state’s school turnaround work overseen by the Achievement School District, or ASD.
Oliver-Harris is among Memphis parents contacted this year by Shelby County Schools — still the state’s largest district but one that has lost enrollment annually in recent years — while seeking to retain students and the funding that goes with them. Hillcrest High is one of four Memphis schools previously with Shelby County Schools that are reopening next month as state-authorized charters through the ASD, bringing the city’s number of state-run schools to 31.
District leaders have increasingly blamed its enrollment woes on the growth of the ASD and say the loss of four more of its schools will cost the school system more than $20 million in annual state and local funding. This year, they went on the offense to bolster enrollment by recruiting students, reconfiguring grades in its other schools, and rezoning neighborhood boundaries.
Some parents and school leaders charge that the district is using another tactic too — spreading misinformation.
They say the district’s opaque campaign to keep its Hillcrest students aims to shift enrollment to existing Mitchell and Whitehaven. Mitchell, about five miles away and one of the newest additions to the district’s heralded Innovation Zone, has room for about 425 more students. Whitehaven High, about two miles away, is overcrowded and one of the district’s highest-performing schools.
The campaign’s full effect likely won’t be known until closer to the first day of school, said Green Dot spokeswoman Jocquell Rodgers. Hillcrest had approximately 500 students last school year. As of early July, 110 were registered as Green Dot doubled up efforts to contact students zoned for the school. “We’ve walked in every apartment complex, knocked on doors, phone calls. We’ve texted,” Rodgers said.
A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said she would look into allegations about misinformation. She provided the script used for robocalls to parents at the affected schools, which said the ASD would take over operations in August. The script also offered options for moving to another school still with Shelby County Schools.
The issue was broached in an email exchange in May between Dorsey Hopson and Malika Anderson, superintendents of the two districts.
“We are unaware of any evidence to substantiate the allegations … that SCS has sent miscommunication to parents,” Shelby County’s Hopson wrote the ASD’s Anderson on May 20.
“Moreover, assertions that Hillcrest is closing next year would be unbelievable,” he continued. “The community is well aware that Hillcrest will be a part of the ASD next year. Administrators at Whitehaven did acknowledge numerous calls from Hillcrest families inquiring about the choice transfer process and space availability at Whitehaven. While this happens every year, they noted that several families indicated that they wanted to transfer because they did not want to be a part of the ASD.”
Hopson added: “We do not condone any SCS employee sending ‘misleading’ information to families but we will support school leaders’ efforts to market their schools and recruit students. I am somewhat concerned about the perception that SCS and/or its school leaders are engaging in some sort of misconduct.”
Former Hillcrest algebra teacher Jordan Mann, who is now school operations manager under Green Dot, said she witnessed first-hand efforts to redirect students. While stuffing student report cards in envelopes in May as an employee of Shelby County Schools, she saw notes included from the district.
“It said based on your child’s address, your child has been zoned to Mitchell High School next year. … They all said that,” Mann said.
Students in fact are still zoned to Hillcrest High. Enrolling in Mitchell High would require a transfer request and would not guarantee transportation.
“We’re not trying to say that Mitchell’s bad. We just want our kids back,” Mann said, adding she wanted to stay at Hillcrest to continue relationships with students and their families.
Green Dot has tried to get the word out about Hillcrest through a number of avenues, even commissioning a billboard on Elvis Presley Boulevard that said “Welcome to the new ‘Haven for great education” with logos of Fairley and Hillcrest high schools, which are now both Green Dot Memphis schools. The suggestion came from Percy Hunter, a Fairley High alum who is the operator’s parent and community engagement coordinator and the pastor of nearby Christ United Baptist Church. Hunter said he wants people to know “Fairley and Hillcrest still exist and that a great education can still be got at those schools.”
Parents at Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which also is being converted to an ASD charter through operator Scholar Academies, have been hit by a similar barrage of conflicting information before and after the two districts’ last-minute effort to collaborate sputtered in May. Now, Scholar Academies is proceeding with its plan to reopen Raleigh Egypt Middle as a charter, while Shelby County Schools has reconfigured the grades of nearby Raleigh Egypt High to attract middle school students there.
The school board’s reconfiguration plan drew a stern reprimand from the Tennessee Department of Education in April, calling the maneuvering “contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.” In its statement, the state also urged districts to “communicate accurate information to families about their choices, inclusive of the ASD, and avoid any communication that would confuse or mislead parents about the options for their children.”
At a late June meeting at the middle school sponsored by Memphis Lift, a parents organization that promotes school choice, many parents whose kids are zoned for Raleigh Egypt Middle said they had no idea the school would even open this fall.
“As far as we were told, they were closing,” said parent LaTonya Key, who found out about the charter option by chance when she came to the school and spoke with the incoming principal of Raleigh Egypt Middle.
For Green Dot’s Rodgers, she understands what’s at stake in Memphis’ increasingly intense battle for students.
“(Shelby County Schools) want to make sure the student stays (in its district),” she said. “… The reach of the ASD is widening. I don’t think people were so nervous about that when the ASD was mostly in Frayser.”
Memphis reporter Katie Kull contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about Shelby County Schools’ script for robocalls to parents.