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Memphis leaders urge state to stay out of their school improvement work

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and the Shelby County Schools board are taking a stance against the Tennessee Department of Education's latest intervention plans for two Memphis schools.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and the Shelby County Schools board are taking a stance against the Tennessee Department of Education's latest intervention plans for two Memphis schools.
Helen Carefoot

School leaders in Memphis are taking a stand against the state’s new plan to intervene in several struggling schools in their city.

The school board approved a resolution Tuesday evening supporting Shelby County Schools’ own “efforts to turnaround low-performing schools without intervention or takeover by the State of Tennessee.”

As such, the district wants to move American Way Middle School to its Innovation Zone turnaround program next fall instead of converting it to charter school in the fall of 2019 as the state recently outlined.

The district also is declining the state’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

Both schools are slotted for the most intense interventions in Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s plan for state involvement in 21 low-performing Memphis schools.

But a state spokeswoman said the board’s action on American Way is too late to impact the state’s decision.

“We hope to see the school make progress in the remaining months of the school year, but the district needed to take stronger intervention steps sooner to affect the decisions we made earlier this year,” said Sara Gast of the Department of Education. “It will continue forward on its current intervention track.”

The state does not have power to close Hawkins Mill, but Gast said the district needs state approval for any improvement plan.

The board’s positions put the district and state at odds again over the best way to improve chronically underperforming schools in Memphis. But this time, the dissension is in response to the state’s new accountability and school improvement model developed under the 2015 federal education law. The model is designed to work more collaboratively with local districts, but most Memphians are still angry about dozens of school takeovers since 2012 by the state’s charter-reliant Achievement School District, mostly with disappointing results.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, presented her resolution on American Way last week to get ahead of the state’s plan either to convert it into a charter chosen by the district or to enter the ASD. The school board approved it unanimously on Tuesday.

“The iZone is a plan that’s working,” she told Chalkbeat later. “When you have an intervention that’s working, we can’t wait a year.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he plans to set aside funding in his upcoming budget to bring American Way into the iZone this fall.

“The (state’s) proposed track was two years out. We all agree it needs intervention. Obviously the state has its preferred method, but we’ll see,” he said.

Regarding the other 19 schools on the state’s list, Hopson was more conciliatory.

“We did collaborate around the schools on the list,” he said. “There’s schools we just disagree on.”

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