Achievement School District Leaders Hold Meetings

By Bill Dries

Leaders of the Achievement School District started earlier in the run-up to their second school year than they did with the first group of five Memphis schools they picked for the state-run district’s debut in August.

Leaders of the Achievement School District are meeting with the public sooner than they did in the first round of selecting schools for the state-run school district earlier this year. The district is aimed at the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student achievement. The goal is to bring those schools into the top 25 percent of the state.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The announcement for the first five district schools came in February with some lead work in the way of public hearings.

This time in selecting 10 middle and elementary schools to add to the district next fall, district leaders are off to a much earlier start. And at the public hearings that began last week and continued this week, they brought along teachers from the first five Achievement School District schools to talk to audiences that are dominated by teachers.

There were three community meetings Monday, Nov. 12, in different parts of the city.

The meeting at the Hamilton Community Center drew a group of 40 adults, most of them teachers at some of the 14 schools being considered for the Achievement School District.

A district advisory group will recommend 10 of the schools for the district by Dec. 10. The district will announce which schools it selects Dec. 17 including which will be operated by the district and which will be operated by charter schools working under contract for the district.

Achievement School District leaders as well as teachers at the schools that began operation this year moderated the five small breakout groups.

The community center is in the rear of Hamilton High School, the high school many of the elementary and middle schools being considered feed into.

Elliott Smalley showed a chart of Hamilton and its feeder schools – 16 schools including Hamilton. All but Magnolia Elementary and Hamilton Middle School are in the bottom 5 percent of schools for the state in terms of student achievement.

Smalley made sure the group understood that the Achievement School District is just one of many changes under way in Memphis and Shelby County public schools. He brought up recommendations to close 20 Memphis City Schools that the countywide school board will soon consider.

“That’s not us,” he said. “That’s change that may be coming on other fronts.”

Later in one of the breakout groups, a parent asked Smalley, “You will be changing all of the teachers and the principal?”

“Teachers who want to stay have to apply with us,” Smalley answered, pointing out that the district offered jobs to three-fourths of the teachers in the five schools that became part of the district starting this past fall.

All teachers, principals and staff apply and are hired anew with the Achievement School district.

“If you never reapply, we never have a chance,” Smalley said. “What we want to do is be really clear about the certainty of change.”

The largest of the breakout groups was eight teachers, most from Corry Middle School, a school where according to state education figures only one in 20 students are at their grade level in reading and math. The average statewide for the bottom 5 percent of schools is one in 10 at grade level in math and reading.

“Nobody’s trying to get rid of you,” an Achievement School District moderator began as the teachers huddled. “If you are rock solid, you will have a job.”

“Who determines if you are rock solid?” one of the teachers asked immediately. “Why not provide us with resources and we can do what you are going to do.”

The moderator tried to steer the conversation to a listing of what is currently working with students at Corry.

Another teacher steered the conversation back to the dominant topic.

“Instead of how it’s going to benefit the students, I want to know how it is going to benefit the teachers.”

At the next table, a smaller group of teachers from Norris Elementary School were hearing from two teachers from Westside Middle School, one of the three Achievement School District schools in Frayser.

Before the session, Teddy King, a Westside teacher who now works for the district, talked of a single standard for students that doesn’t change depending on what part of the city they live in.

“Whether they live in Frayser or Whitehaven, we want to see if they can meet the same standard,” he said.

Fredrika Felt, president of the Lichterman Loewenberg Foundation, which is an adopter of Norris Elementary, wanted to know if the foundation could remain involved at the school.

She had already written a letter, made copies and passed them out saying the foundation is opposed to the state takeover of Norris.

“We would regret giving up our role as adopters and feel the students would suffer if they lose the field trips, various activities and interaction that we are able to provide for the school,” her letter read.