When Tennessee’s turnaround district began running its first schools in North Memphis five years ago, community members were scared and pessimistic about state intrusion in neighborhood schools.
Now, they’re concerned that the state is disinvesting from those same low-performing schools following last week’s announcement of job cuts at its Achievement Schools in Frayser.
“It’s hard to say yet how big of an impact this is going to make on the schools, and that’s what’s frustrating to the community,” said Charlie Caswell, who has two children at Whitney Achievement Elementary, one of the five schools affected.
State officials say their plan to cut 59 positions won’t hit the classroom, and parents are waiting to see what the changes will mean for their students. Most of the cuts are for support positions as the State Department of Education merges offices for its Achievement School District with Achievement Schools, the division that directly runs five of the ASD’s 31 Memphis schools.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the restructuring is necessary to sustain the ASD financially as federal funding runs out under the state’s 2010 Race to the Top award. “This will allow us to move forward more efficiently so we can continue to support this work, which we believe is key to changing outcomes for students in our state,” she said last week after meeting with ASD and Achievement Schools staff.
But Caswell points out that school turnaround work is expensive and requires additional student supports.
“For me, it seems like cutting any support staff is significant,” said Caswell, a pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church and longtime Frayser community leader. “The children are already coming out of turmoil in the community, with crime often a regular part of their lives, and teachers need help with addressing students’ emotional needs.”
Frayser is an impoverished, mostly black community where the vast majority of schools are “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent. The neighborhood’s population began to dwindle in the 1970s and 1980s after factory work left the city, and recent efforts have been underway to address blight and crime.
Residents want answers on how the ASD’s belt-tightening could affect their students.
“It feels like the state is taking their foot off of the gas in Memphis,” said Sarah Carpenter, an education advocate whose grandson attends Whitney Achievement. “They can’t take the pressure off… This isn’t just about jobs; it’s about taking away resources from our kids.”
The restructuring, effective June 30, comes as Achievement Schools and its director, Tim Ware, have made headway building a rapport with the community. Ware’s job is among those being cut as oversight of Achievement Schools moves to the ASD’s central office.
Residents like Jerry Wilson say they’re unnerved by the change of course and want more community dialogue on the front end of such decisions.
“When the ASD first moved here, they were on the defense,” said Wilson, a pastor and member of the Frayser Neighborhood Council. “Now that the community has given them a chance, they’re not as attentive to the community as they were when earning that trust. If these schools want to be a part of the community long term, they have to keep the community informed.”
With Ware’s impending departure, Frayser residents need to know who to go to with questions about their schools or students, added Stephanie Love, an ASD parent who represents Frayser on the school board for Shelby County Schools.
“Who is the local contact for the ASD in the Frayser community?” Love asked. “One thing the Frayser community doesn’t need is a contact in Nashville.”
Like all ASD staff losing their jobs, Ware can reapply for new positions in its restructured office, said Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.
White emphasized Monday that Achievement Schools remain committed to serving the Frayser community.
“There will definitely be someone on the ground in Frayser,” White said. “This shouldn’t be viewed as us taking all boots of the ground, but there may be heavier boots as some positions are combined together.”
He added that more parent-focused communication is forthcoming.
“That’s the conversation we’ve been having over the last several days,” White said. “How can we make sure everyone is aware of what the streamlining means for schools moving forward? That’s what we’re working on.”