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VOL. 127 | NO. 75 | Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Westside School Looks for New Legacy

By Bill Dries

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Bobby White knows how many people identify Westside Middle School. And it goes back to the school’s existence as a high school.

In 2004, a group of students from what had been the junior high school part of Westside High left the school’s cafeteria and went to an upstairs bathroom for a timed-beating that was Tarus Williams’ initiation into a new and loosely organized school-based gang called “G-Unit.”

Williams, 15, died on the bathroom floor from a ruptured heart during the beating.

Eight years later, Westside High School is Westside Middle School and White, the principal, is still dealing with the legacy.

“That’s that school where the boy was killed in the restroom,” White told a group of 100 gathered in the school’s auditorium last week to learn more about Westside’s second conversion in recent years.

Westside becomes part of the state-run Achievement School District in August when the new school year begins. That will mean the school gets sixth graders from the elementary schools in Frayser that feed into it. The teachers will reapply for their jobs and parents in the attendance zone will be asked if they want their children to attend Westside.

“Kids are zoned to come here but they don’t have to come,” said ASD superintendent Chris Barbic. “So it’s incumbent upon us to get out into the neighborhood and start banging on doors and talking to parents and talking to community members about what this means. … We should be competing to serve kids.”

Parents in the Westside attendance zone can opt out and go to other Memphis City Schools if they choose.

The school day will be longer. There will be higher expectations and more help in and out of school for the students. And the students who meet those expectations are expected to have a ripple effect into Frayser High School as part of a feeder pattern that begins with the elementary schools feeding into Westside Middle.

The Achievement School District is a group of the state’s lowest performing schools in terms of student achievement test scores. Of the 85 schools in the bottom 5 percent across Tennessee, 68 are in Memphis. The city has the highest concentration of schools in the bottom 5 percent. And of those schools in Memphis, Frayser has the highest concentration.

“That’s mind boggling,” said Jesse Jeff, a teacher at Delano Elementary School, also in Frayser.

Jeff has also taught at Westside Elementary, next to Westside Middle and attended Westside High School in the 1970s.

“The teachers I know – we worked real hard to turn this around,” he said.

Frayser, Barbic says, is where the ASD is planting its flag.

“Our goal is to increase our footprint in Frayser. … We think there’s a benefit to keeping a cluster in one community so we can build relationships,” he said. “If we’re scattered all over the state or all over the city, it becomes much more difficult to build those relationships. We want to get rooted in one place.”

Putting down roots in an area ravaged over several generations by the foreclosure crisis, several waves of gang violence and the closing of local factories in the early 1980s that were the economic foundation of the community will be difficult.

An earlier meeting for parents in the area drew nine. During last week’s session, parents didn’t have anything to say publicly. It was all inquiries from groups hoping to work in the transition.

“I think they’re beginning to understand,” White said later. “Until they really embrace what is going on, it’s not going to be the way it needs to be. It’s going to take time. It’s new for all of us. … This is something that’s never happened.”

Jeff acknowledges the difficulty and the skepticism. He is among the teachers who are part of the Memphis City Schools system’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the teacher evaluation model funded with a grant over several years by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“People still see it as having something done to you as opposed to having something done for you,” he said of the work facing the ASD. “If there’s a way out and we can get them out of this situation and stay out – it’s a good thing. But I’m not all that thrilled about it. I know there’s no panacea or magic bullet to turn schools around. If there were, we would have done it by now.”

Barbic has said since last year that the ASD schools won’t employ any radically new classroom tactics. He has said the key to its success will be better teachers and a school day with more teaching by them than the existing school day.

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