Tennessee

ASD school takeover process a ‘scam,’ say parents who worked with state-run district

PHOTO: Jim Webber/Commercial Appeal
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School student Jonisha Simms (center) listens as parents and members of the school's neighborhood advisory council protest in December in front of the Shelby County Schools' administration building over the charter matching process established by the Achievement School District.

The Achievement School District’s new school takeover process, heralded by state officials as a way to ensure transparency and parental input about what’s best for Memphis students, came under attack Monday from involved parents who called the process a “scam” based on “biased” data.

As discrepancies surfaced to the ASD’s public reports about the community’s input, some members of the district’s much-touted neighborhood advisory councils held a news conference charging that the process was rigged in favor of pairing struggling schools with charter operators.

Also, a review of NAC rubric and scoring data obtained by the Tennessee Education Report found that many negative reviews of the proposed charter operators were redacted because of “lack of evidence,” making “the matching process a foregone conclusion.”

“This essentially disenfranchises the members of the community to be a real and authentic part of the matching process,” wrote Ezra Howard, a regular columnist for the online education blog.

When unveiling its new community engagement process during the summer, ASD officials said the approach would bring more transparency to its school turnaround work, which has been wrought with community pushback every year since the state-run district took control of its first six schools in Memphis in 2012.

As their efforts at community consensus-building appeared to unravel on Monday, ASD leaders stuck by the process.

“We did our best to run a fair, transparent process and we believe we achieved that,” the ASD said in a statement. “We are grateful to the parents, students, teachers, counselors and community members who spent the better part of two months learning about and evaluating the potential fit of operators that applied to serve these Priority schools.”

LaToya Robinson, a parent who served on one neighborhood advisory council (NAC), was among three NAC members who organized the press conference outside of Shelby County Schools Board of Education building. The group charged that the ASD’s commitment to community involvement was only an attempt to “appease the community,” paving the way for the district’s decision this month to take control of four more schools.

“They took our schools. We did not give [them] away,” one angry parent said.

Robinson was more moderate in her comments later to Chalkbeat, welcoming the ASD’s presence and noting that “before the ASD came, no one cared about (Shelby County Schools).” However, she wishes that ASD officials had been more transparent about how NAC feedback would be incorporated in their final decisions, which ultimately were made by the district’s six-member leadership team.

This year’s takeovers marked a significant shift in the ASD’s approach to state intervention and the pairing of low-performing schools with charter operators. Rather than making a unilateral decision, as they had the previous three years, district officials announced proposed takeovers in September, received applications from interested charter operators in October, and involved panels of parents and community members in scoring the applicants in November.

ASD officials said charter operators for four of five schools met the standards for a match by earning 50 percent or more of the available points from NAC assessments. However, according to the rubrics filled out by NAC members, most operators did not satisfy standards necessary to manage the schools for which they applied.

ASD leaders said the scoring was based on NAC feedback that was “evidence-based.”

Robinson said she had an open mind when she decided to get involved in the ASD matching process. She was chosen to serve on an NAC that would help determine the future of Sheffield Elementary and Kirby Middle schools. The mother of two 6-year-old children, she pored over applications by Aspire and Green Dot, two charter networks seeking to manage three Shelby County schools. She loved Aspire, but was unimpressed with Green Dot after touring Wooddale Middle, one of the Los Angeles-based operator’s other Memphis schools.

Detailing her concerns on the ASD’s rubric, she was dismayed after learning later that much of the advisory council’s feedback had been discounted because ASD officials said it was based more on opinion than on evidence. Ultimately, the ASD gave the green light to Green Dot to operate two schools but rejected Aspire’s application to manage one school.

“The process was great,” Robinson said. “But then it was like they found any way they could to make (our rubrics) show what they wanted it to show.”

For Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, all but one council member wrote that Scholar Academies (SA) did not meet standards without reservations on any of the rubric’s eight criteria. The members, whose names were redacted, cited the operator’s lack of understanding of the neighborhood, lack of community outreach, and safety concerns among reasons against a match at this time with the Philadelphia-based charter organization.

“Raleigh Egypt Middle Schools is in a gang-infested neighborhood,” wrote one member. “Many of the students, their family, and friends are in gangs. SA has not talked about procedures for dealing with this issue.”

Another wrote: “There is evidence that Scholar Academies has attempted to involve the school community in the school transformation process before the school conversion but their strategies were ineffective in reaching the broader community as evident by engagement sessions sign-in sheets and community’s response to surveys distributed by SA. There is no evidence that partnerships with organizations in the community have been formed.”

The ASD’s Dec. 11 announcement that it would convert four more Memphis schools into charters came on the heels of a Vanderbilt study suggesting that the ASD has been less effective at turning around struggling Memphis schools than the local district has through its Innovation Zone.

The study intensified community furor against the state-run district and prompted Shelby County’s school board to pursue a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows “consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.” However, Tennessee Department of Education officials said the local district does not have authority to issue a moratorium, since state law gives the ASD authority to take control of eligible low-performing schools to implement strategies designed to turn them around.

In a statement Monday, department spokeswoman Ashley Ball said:  “It’s important to remember that the matching process wasn’t designed to determine if these schools needed an intervention; these schools have been on the Priority list since 2012. The matching process was designed to find the right intervention for these schools and these communities. As improvements to the process are identified, the department will proactively make adjustments.”

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