After a tumultuous experience this fall in Memphis, the Achievement School District is using a different strategy to choose which school it will take over in Nashville.
The timeline in Nashville is shorter:While in Memphis, meetings with teachers and parents started almost two months before ASD officials will make their final decisions, Nashvillians had less than three weeks, one of which was shortened by Thanksgiving.
The pool is smaller: The ASD will only intervene in one school in Nashville — either Madison Middle Prep or Neely’s Bend Middle Prep — versus at least nine in Memphis. In Nashville, there is only one possible charter operator.
And the outreach by ASD officials and educators from LEAD Public Schools, the charter organization that will take over the school, is more focused: Rather than targeting the entire community, they’re phoning and visiting fourth-grade parents, whose children would be the first ones to attend the school post-takeover.
For LEAD officials, the weeks since the ASD announced its impending takeover have been filled with meetings with elected officials and teachers, open houses, and phone calls, all part of an effort to educate the community about their schools.
But for many teachers and parents in Madison, where both middle schools are located, the weeks have been filled with concern and confusion. Why are Neely’s Bend and Madison being considered for state takeover, rather than lower performing schools which have been on the priority list for multiple years? What factors are being taken into account in the decision between the two schools? What happens next?
Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which contains the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The ASD aims to to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 25.
Timing of meetings questioned
“I think it would have been nice to have more notice,” said Jill Speering, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board member who represents both Neely’s Bend and Madison. Speering is concerned about Thursday, when both parent input meetings are at the same time. “Having both meetings the same night is a tactic to disregard the community voice,” she said.
ASD officials say the decision was strategic — but rather than hoping to stifle the community voice, they want to magnify parents’ voices.
When Speering raised her concerns to Chris Barbic, the ASD superintendent, he replied in an e-mail that, “Given the main intent [of the Dec. 4th meetings] —a focused conversation with parents who are zoned for these schools—holding both meetings at the same time creates no major conflicts.”
He said that he could try to extend one of the meetings, or videotape both, so Speering and the state representative for Madison, Bill Beck, could participate in both meetings.
He cited hotel costs as another reason to have both meetings the same night. Most of the ASD staff live in Memphis.
ASD chief operating officer Elliot Smalley said that a desire to have parents dominate the discussion over which school will be taken over — rather than teachers, as has been the case in Memphis — caused ASD officials to rebrand the meetings as “parent meetings” rather than “community meetings,” which is what they called the equivalent meetings in Memphis.
Facebook posts, shared by both Speering and fellow board member Amy Frogge, as well as dozens of other Nashville residents, urged people from across Nashville to attend Thursday’s meetings, because “it is anticipated that the school which has the least amount of community support will be taken over by the Achievement School District.”
But Smalley said that isn’ttrue — it’s about the quality of feedback from parents, not the quantity. He said officials would be listening for what parents like about their current neighborhood school and want to maintain, and what they don’t like.
Decision will be ASD’s alone
Although Smalley said that parent feedback would be an important factor in the officials’ final decisions, he said that in the end, the fate of Madison and Neely’s Bend will be decided by ASD officials alone. In Memphis, the final decisions about takeovers also belong to ASD officials, but they first hear recommendations from the Achievement Advisory Council, a group of parent and community volunteers from the Memphis community.
Legally, the ASD could decide which schools to take over without input from anyone else. But ASD officials did narrow their list to Neely’s Bend and Madison as a direct consequence of feedback from Metro Nashville officials and the leaders of LEAD, Smalley said.
LEAD is the only charter operator authorized by the ASD to open a school in Nashville that is interested in doing so, and was only interested in transforming a middle school. That narrowed possible Nashville schools to the five middle school on the priority list.
The lowest performing of those schools, Bailey STEM Magnet Middle Prep, is in the midst of a several-year turnaround effort by Metro Schools, and so Metro Schools officials asked that the ASD leave it untouched. Another middle school, Jere Baxter Middle Prep, is under-enrolled, and the ASD wanted to takeover a fully enrolled school, to make the biggest impact possible.
A third middle school on the priority list, Joelton Middle Prep, achieved the highest possible growth rating by the state last year — a Level 5 — indiciating to ASD officials that it didn’t need to be taken over. That left Neely’s Bend and Madison, Smalley said.
But many teachers and parents in Madison say they feel like those schools were on the right track, too.
On Nov. 20, Christy King, a teacher at Madison, told Chalkbeat that the gains Madison made last year were not enough, but she felt they were an upward trend without state intervention. This year, the school system devoted $94,500 to turnaround programs at Madison, and more than $280,000 at Neely’s Bend.
Although their overall growth scores from the state were ones, the lowest level, both Madison and Neely’s Bend posted level 5 gains in numeracy skills in 2013-2014 — Neely’s Bend for growth in numeracy skills over two years, and Madison for growth in one year.
Brittney Garland is the mother of two students at Neely’s Bend Elementary, which feeds into Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, and an alumni of Neely’s Bend Middle Prep. She said she decided to move her family back to Madison specifically because of her positive experience at the schools in the area.
“These are good neighborhood schools,” she said.
Because her oldest child is in the third grade, she did not receive phone calls or letters about the meetings next week. She said that concerned her, since her son will also be affected if the ASD chooses Neely’s Bend. An active member of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, she said few elementary school parents were aware of possible changes to their zoned middle school.
Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, said that he and other ASD and LEAD personnel thought long and hard about the scope of their outreach, and whether to reach out to parents of younger children. Ultimately, he said, they wanted to limit confusion, and avoid the perception that a decision had already made. Reynolds said that once a decision has been made, LEAD teachers and administrators will mail a letter to all elementary parents in the zone, and knock on every family’s door in the chosen school’s zone.
‘Why would we want to go backwards?’
But Reynolds said he still hopes that parents of younger students, like Garland, show up on Thursday.
“I encourage all families in the neighborhood zone to come out and share their views and learn about LEAD,” he said. “It’s important that we hear from families in the zone, because those are the people we’ll eventually serve.”
Garland said she was also concerned to learn that the average passing rates across the Achievement School District are lower than either Neely’s Bend or Madison.
“Why would we want to go backwards?” she said.
Reynolds said that the most relevant comparisons for parents in Madison to make are to the Nashville schools that Lead has already moved into, Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep.
“I think that’s a relevant comparison because those are zoned enrollment schools that serve all children and provide transportation to all kids, and are the model that we’re basing Madison or Neely’s Bend on,” he said. “So that’s the real comparison, and our outcomes speak to themselves.”
Another LEAD middle school, Lead Academy, has been tapped by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for persistently low test scores. Unlike Cameron or Brick Church, the enrollment of that school is not limited to students who live in a residential zone. Reynolds said that it was also a relevant comparison for parents to make, though.
“It’s not the same type of school, but that’s our lowest performing campus, and our results are still significantly higher than Neely’s Bend or Madison,” he said.
The parent meetings are at 5:30 on Thursday at each school. Lead Public Schools are hosting open houses at Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10.
Clarification: This article was updated to reflect the role of the Achievement Advisory Council.
For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.