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.”