Tennessee

Exclusive: Green Dot Public Schools pulls out of Raleigh-Egypt ASD takeover

Green Dot Public Schools, a nationally-known charter school network, has backed out of an agreement with Tennessee’s Achievement School District to take over Memphis’ academically-troubled Raleigh-Egypt High School next year, Chalkbeat learned Thursday.

The decision follows a month of raucous protests from students, parents, and teachers, and strong pushback from the city’s superintendent, who said the intervention was unnecessary and disruptive.

Green Dot officials said Thursday that a lack of community buy-in would hurt the success at the school, where just one of the school’s 748 students passed the English End of Course exam last year.

“We don’t want to create a hostile environment where kids are in the middle of this,” said Megan Quaile, the executive director of Tennessee’ s Green Dot Public Schools.  “They’ve asked us to give them some time and we’re going to honor their request.”

State law allows the ASD to take over Tennessee’s worst-performing schools and directly run them or hand them over to charter schools.

Green Dot is the third operator this fall to pull out of an agreement with the ASD to take over struggling Memphis schools. Two other networks  – KIPP and Freedom Prep–pulled out of the process last month, citing concerns about their own capacity to take on more schools.

Today’s development delivers another blow to the ASD’s “matching” process. Under that process, the ASD coordinates get-to-know-you meetings and informational events between charter schools and some of the lowest performing schools in the state to help the ASD and a board of community members decide how and whether to intervene in particular schools.

Shelby County Schools board members, parents, and teachers have described the matching process as confusing, demoralizing and destructive to schools. They have also pointed out that while some schools’ test scores improved after state intervention, others have dipped, leading some board members and politicians to call for a moratorium on the ASD’s expansion.

The ASD has said the matching process is meant to build community buy-in to help schools reach the ASD’s  stated goal of taking the bottom 5 percent of schools and catapulting them into the state’s top 25 percent of schools in five years. This year’s blips have caused district officials concern but they still plan to move forward with the matching process.

“The expectation was that everybody was ready to move forward,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said Thursday.  “If we felt like they weren’t ready, then we wouldn’t have had them involved in this process.  We’re never going to force an operator to do something that they don’t want to do.”

“We’re going to go back and do an autopsy once we’re done with all this,” Barbic said. “What are some things we can do to minimize this from happening again. We want kids in priority schools to have the best shot possible at a good education.”

Just six of the 12 Memphis schools named by the ASD last month as takeover candidates are still in the takeover mix. And Green Dot still plans to take over Wooddale Middle School.  The ASD currently runs 22 schools.

When the ASD announced last month that it would take over Raleigh-Egypt High School, a sports powerhouse situated in a blue-collar neighborhood in North Memphis, politicians, board members, alumni, and community activists objected. They expressed hope that the school’s new principal, plucked from Bolton High School, would turn the school around without ASD intervention.

Raleigh Egypt principal James "Bo" Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Raleigh Egypt principal James “Bo” Griffin shows off Raleigh-Egypt High School.

Principal James “Bo” Griffin publicly promoted his efforts to sweep the hallways of fights, expel the school’s trouble makers and develop a three-year academic plan with Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and Egypt Elementary that included tutoring and professional development. Egypt Elementary made some of the largest academic gains in the state this year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at a board meeting last month that he specifically asked the ASD not to take over Raleigh-Egypt High School because of the “synergy” between the high school middle school and elementary school campus.

But the ASD said Raleigh-Egypt was the only high school in the state to fall into a stringent set of takeover criteria agreed upon with Shelby County Schools.

Some schools on this year’s ASD list were only provisionally tabbed for takeover. But Raleigh-Egypt was a “direct placement” school, meaning the ASD had definitively decided to turn over the school to  Green Dot, a charter management organization that has gained national attention for turning around several tough high schools in its home state of California.

Being taken over by the ASD would interrupt the sorts of gains the school has made this year, principal Griffin said.

“I don’t really understand it as a first-year principal,” Griffin said about the takeover process. “I know the governor believes in it but I still believe it’s the people, not the programs that make a difference in schools. If there were one program, we’d all be doing it.”

Griffin also took issue with Green Dot being an out-of-state charter network, saying its staff wouldn’t understand the particular challenges of the Raleigh neighborhood, including gang violence and intense poverty.

Last year, Green Dot took over Memphis’ Fairley High School and immediately set up a task force made up of parents, teachers and community members to make decisions at the school about budget and extra-curricular activities. Despite its costs, Green Dot Schools officials retained the school’s famous high-stepping marching band and added some sports programs back that had been dormant for several years.

That sort of community buy-in is crucial to getting students to show up to school and engaged in the classroom, ultimately boosting test scores, Green Dot’s Quaile said.

Raleigh-Egypt High School's test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.
Raleigh-Egypt High School’s test scores are among some of the lowest in the state.

But after meeting with several parents and staff members at Raleigh-Egypt High School, Quaile decided she’d have a much harder time creating that sort of culture there.

ASD officials said Thursday they plan to meet with Hopson in the coming weeks to formulate a smoother takeover process, in which community members are better informed about upcoming decisions, and charter schools aren’t pulling out.

Principal Griffin said he plans to have a faculty meeting Thursday afternoon to let teachers know about the decision and prepare for a Thanksgiving day food drive for students Friday. The local Krogers has donated 750 baskets of food Raleigh-Egypt families.

“I think this is an opportunity to know where we’re at now but not knowing where we’re going to be next year, this should be fuel for us to work even harder to hit our numbers,” Griffin said.

In a draft of a letter addressed to community members and obtained by Chalkbeat, Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said the school could potentially be placed in the Shelby County’s iZone, a district-led effort similar to the ASD’s, where staff are also required to reapply to their jobs.

“If Raleigh-Egypt doesn’t make significant progress this year, it will be eligible to match with Green Dot…in the 2016-17 school year,” Anderson said.

The ASD is expected to announce its decisions for the remaining schools on the takeover list on Dec. 12.

 For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

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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