Teachers organizing against ASD ‘want to do something radical’

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Teachers held signs protesting the ASD takeover during a community meeting at Denver Elementary

Dozens of teachers are organizing in an attempt to stop the state-run Achievement School District from taking over more underperforming schools, a state-led strategy they say is flawed and has largely failed to improve student achievement.

The Shelby County Teachers Coalition plans to protest at several upcoming meetings, at which the local school board will make crucial decisions about what to do next year with its lowest performing schools. Options include closing schools, expanding Shelby County Schools’ own efforts to turn around low-performing schools —  known as the iZone  — or pulling several hundred students from schools co-located with ASD schools.

Coalition leaders said they oppose ending school colocations because endless changes are disruptive to students and parents.

The group is operating outside the Memphis Shelby County Teachers Association. “They’re supposed to be doing what we’re doing,” one of the members said.

“We want to do something radical but we have to be strategic because they (the ASD) are strategic,” said one of the group’s founders. Several of the group’s members spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared losing their jobs.

This flyer was placed on attendees' cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.
This flyer was placed on attendees’ cars during a community meeting at Denver Elementary School last week.

While parents and teachers have protested the takeover process in prior years, this year’s protests have been particularly hostile and well-organized, drawing media attention and politicians’ support.  At a series of meetings last week organized by the ASD, teachers passed out glossy pamphlets comparing their schools’ test scores to those of charter schools. They also fed questions to students and parents to ask charter organizations. When the charter officials attempted to answer the questions, teachers frequently shouted them down.

That especially frustrated ASD and charter officials who said the teachers were drowning out the parents’ voices as well.

It’s hard to forecast what sort of impact an organized effort against the ASD might have. The state district’s ability to take over and operate schools academically ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent, or to hand them over to independently-run charter organizations, is protected by state law.

But after years of mixed academic results in ASD schools, an SCS board members said recently they will push to change that law in this upcoming legislative session. It’s an effort the teacher coalition’s leaders said in interviews they will get behind.

Almost a full third of the district’s schools performed so poorly in recent years that they qualify to be taken over by the ASD. The ASD plans to take over several more schools next year.

ASD officials said that while they have had growing pains, they have also seen successes and their presence has spurred rapid improvement in the traditional public schools.  They’ve said this year’s “matching process” incorporated SCS officials’ input and considered a slew of other factors that they predicted will lead to future success.

“We have an incredibly high bar for authorizing our charters, and the only operators going through matching are those with proven results in Memphis or other cities, or new operators with proven results as educators,” said Elliot Smalley, the district’s chief of staff said in an email Wednesday.

The teacher coalition is made up of a core group of teachers from schools that have been part of the ASD takeover process since the state legislature created the district in 2012.  Over the years, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat, they have studied the law that created the ASD, the state’s charter laws, and the ASD’s existing schools’ academic records.  They have also spoken with several teachers, parents, and students who currently work at ASD schools or who have left ASD schools.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD's chief of staff
Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff

The group argues that dramatic budget cuts by Shelby County Schools in recent years have resulted in large class sizes, few extra-curricular activities and outdated textbooks. These cuts are especially acute at the district’s neediest schools, where a disproportionate number of students qualify for special education, are hungry, and whose parents lack the time or wherewithal to promote their children’s academic success.

To compare these schools’ test scores to suburban or rural schools with more stable environments and resources is simply unfair, the group’s leaders told Chalkbeat.  Further, teachers said, for the state to intervene and hand the schools over to charter schools and make teachers reapply for their jobs at the schools causes more chaos in already chaotic environments.

The coalition leaders pointed out that several of the schools the ASD has taken directly over have performed worse than they were performing when they were operated by Shelby County Schools.  However, some of the schools the ASD has turned over to charters have performed much better.

“We appreciate the (teacher) coalition’s emphasis on results—that’s the essence of this work, ensuring students learn and succeed,” the ASD’s Smalley said.  “It’s far too early to draw major conclusions about our results—we’ve only run schools for two years and two-thirds of our schools were in just their first year last year—but if you look at our first neighborhood charter schools matched with neighborhood priority schools (two years of data), they’re showing real signs of promise, and they’re doing considerably better than the schools under consideration for matching.”

The group said this year’s takeover process is especially confusing. Teachers said when two charter organizations pulled out of the process last week because of capacity concerns, it left the school communities with which they were going to be matched with confused, demoralized, and uncertain about their future. But coalition members said the pullout “energized” the activists.

The ASD plans to announce which schools it will take over in the beginning of December.

Several dozen teachers have expressed interest in joining the group in recent days and the founders say they plan to eventually reach out to parents and community activists, too.  They’re keeping other plans under wraps right now.

The ASD, meanwhile, is moving forward with its plans to engage community members and parents.

“So much of this conversation is right—people asking great questions, voicing support for their schools, and expressing deep emotions about education, schools, and community,” ASD superintendent Chris Barbic said in an e-mail to his community Monday. “We don’t believe authentic community engagement is a neat and tidy process.  Not if it’s done right.  It’s totally understandable that last week’s meetings spurred people’s emotions and generated good, hard questions. We commit to standing with communities and, together with our operators, answering these questions and listening to parents’ input.”


Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.