Tennessee

At ASD meetings in Nashville, more emotion than specifics

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Teachers lined the walkway to Neely's Bend Middle Prep in protest against the Achievement School District.

Meetings held by the Achievement School District at two middle schools in Madison Thursday evening  were supposed to be a forum for parents to tell district officials what they wanted to see in a middle school, and for the ASD to explain what kind of changes a state takeover of one of the struggling schools would bring.

Instead, the meetings were high on emotion and low on specifics, leaving parents, elected officials, teachers, and ASD officials alike frustrated.

Parents and teachers in the northeastern Nashville community learned in late November that one of its two middle schools, Madison Middle Prep or Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, both of which received the state’s lowest rating for student growth last year, would be taken over by the ASD effective next school year. The ASD has the legal authority to take over any Tennessee school in the bottom 5 percent as measured by performance.

Since then, some community members have expressed confusion as to why the middle schools in their community  were targeted, and what a state takeover might entail. ASD officials and Metro Nashville Public Schools board members have volleyed conflicting data points, and argued about whether the schools in Madison are already on an upward trend.

On Thursday, parents and children gathered at both schools to learn about LEAD Public Schools, the local charter organization that will take over whichever school the ASD chooses. At Neely’s Bend, they were joined by a contingent of staff members from LEAD’s current Nashville schools, and teachers’ union members from across the country, who lined the walkway to the school holding candles in support of traditional public schools. (The teachers were in town for an unrelated National Education Association conference.)

Air of tension

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, said at the start of the meeting at Neely’s Bend that he intended to help parents understand what makes a LEAD charter school different from a traditional public school. Earlier this week, Smalley said that ASD officials made a special effort to ensure fourth-grade parents could ask questions and share their concerns at the meetings. Because LEAD phases in grade-by-grade, current fourth-graders will be the first to attend the transformed school next fall.

ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley talks to a parent after the meeting.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley talks to a parent after the meeting.

But, mirroring similar informational meetings in Memphis, much of Thursday’s meetings was taken up be statements in support of both Madison and Neely’s Bend Middle Preps’ current administrations. A key difference from the Memphis meetings was that parents of current students, not teachers, dominated the discussion. Metro Nashville school board members weighed in as well, strongly opposing the state takeover.

Other than representatives from LEAD and the ASD, the only people who spoke in favor of takeover were parents at current LEAD schools.

Emotional parents, disagreements between ASD officials and Nashville school board members, and, at Neely’s Bend, a dearth of Spanish translators, added to the air of tension at the meetings. Fourth grade parents had to wait to ask specific questions — whether art classes would be offered at a LEAD school, or how long the school day would be, for example  — until after the meeting was over, and much of the crowd had dispersed.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of people who didn’t have chance to in this atmosphere to ask those questions,” Smalley said as parents clumped around LEAD teachers in green t-shirts. “You may have noticed that even though we asked for parents right at the beginning, I think that a certain tone was set by people who aren’t parents, who spoke for awhile,” he said, indirectly referring to a board member and state representative.

“I think that was unfortunate,” he said.

The meeting at Neely’s Bend ran slightly over its planned hour. Brittney Garland, a parent of two children at Neely’s Bend Elementary, said she was dissatisfied at the lack of time for parents to ask questions.

She said that she appreciated how Smalley addressed her concerns about the lack of communication with parents of younger elementary student parents.

But she said she left with a negative feeling about LEAD and the ASD because of the tension during the meeting and the rushed pace.

“If this is how disorganized these people are, and if this is their attitude — all of the negative energy,  you could just feel it — I definitely don’t want to be a part of it,” Garland said. She said she will be in a tough place if Neely’s Bend is selected for takeover, because, unlike most charter schools, students are assigned to ASD schools if they live in the residential zone.

But Israel Knife, another parent of a Neely’s Bend elementary student, said the meeting encouraged him to go to a LEAD open house next week. He said he thought a neighborhood LEAD school might present his daughter with better educational opportunities, and said that he looked forward to learning about LEAD’s academic model — a detail missing from both Thursday’s meetings.

All of the parents who spoke at the meeting were against a state takeover of the school, but Knife said that he wasn’t so sure, citing the school’s low test scores.

“It’s kind of scary that you feel like that’s your only choice,” he said.

Data disagreements

As in Memphis, data points were regularly brought up to both justify takeover and leaving the schools alone.

Metro Schools board members Jill Speering at Madison and Amy Frogge at Neely’s Bend presented data suggesting that LEAD’s current school in the ASD, Brick Church, showed less growth in test scores last year than Neely’s Bend or Madison. ASD officials refuted both of them — superintendent Chris Barbic at Madison, and Smalley at Neely’s Bend.

Board member Amy Frogge and an ASD official discuss data on the sidelines of the meeting.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Board member Amy Frogge and an ASD official discuss data on the sidelines of the meeting.

“You may have noticed that even though we asked for parents right at the beginning, I think that a certain tone was set by people who aren’t parents, who spoke for awhile. I think that was unfortunate,” Smalley said, referring indirectly to Frogge.

According to the state report card, Neely’s Bend and Madison had the lowest possible rating for overall growth last year, a one, while Brick Church College Prep had the highest, a five. As Speering and Frogge also noted, Neely’s Bend and Madison had higher passing rates on the TCAP than most schools in the ASD. (You can find the state report card here, and student growth data here.)

The ASD’s mixed academic results have been highly publicized. Smalley urged attendees to focus primarily on LEAD’s record, rather than the ASD’s.

Speering also noted that another LEAD school, Lead Academy, has been tapped by Metro Schools for persistently low test scores. Metro Schools sent LEAD a warning about the school in October. Charter schools can be closed if they don’t make sufficient gains in three years. Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, noted earlier this week that Lead Prep does have higher passing rates than either Neely’s Bend or Madison.

Smalley explained why the ASD focused on Neely’s Bend and Madison: Though neither are the lowest performing middle schools in Nashville, he said, they were chosen for potential takeover because all of the other low performing middle schools were either under-enrolled, or because of turnaround efforts are already in place. (You can read more about the ASD decision here).

Madison and Neely’s Bend have also undergone turnaround efforts in recent years, and both have new principals. The principal at Madison is in her second year, and the principal at Neely’s Bend started in September.

Smalley also briefly outlined the differences in school funding for the ASD and traditional public schools. The ASD has a slightly higher per-pupil-expenditure than Mtero Schools, and, Smalley said, because teachers at schools in the ASD have more autonomy, their funds can be spent more efficiently.

At Madison, some parents said that if their school had the resources of ASD schools like Brick Church, it might see the same gains — and noted their schools were doing better than other ASD schools, even without the resources.

Parents will have a chance to ask more questions at open houses at Brick Church College Prep and a second LEAD school, Cameron College Prep, on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10. Two days later, on Dec. 12, the ASD will announce its final decision.

Audio from Madison was contributed by Emily Siner at WPLN.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede