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VOL. 127 | NO. 224 | Thursday, November 15, 2012

Project GRAD Could be High School Answer

By Bill Dries

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The Achievement School District’s first venture into high school education in Memphis with the 2012-2013 school year would be a new school as an option for those in 15 Memphis high schools.

Project GRAD would not be a conventional charter school operating within any existing high school in Memphis.

GRAD USA, the Houston, Texas-based company operating the partnership model with local school districts also offers GRAD Academies that operate open enrollment high schools in other school districts. GRAD targets students in low-income areas with a curriculum that combines arts with science, technology, engineering and math, and emphasizes high school as well as college graduation.

Project GRAD would be housed in its own building and would not replace any existing high school, said Achievement School District superintendent Chris Barbic. And it would be an “option” for parents of students at the 15 Memphis high schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“It’s a new school that is a complete choice for parents,” Barbic said. “We’re not looking to do anything inside those high schools. What we do want to do is create an option if there are families that have kids going to those schools that aren’t satisfied with what’s going on there, then this gives them an alternative.”

Barbic talked about the “transformation partner” at a University of Memphis gathering Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the Fogelman Executive Center.

It was a chance for parents, teachers and community members to meet with the charter school providers who will run some of the newest achievement district schools next school year.

The charter schools in the Achievement School District have contracts with the state-run district, not the local school system. The first two, opened with the start of the current school year, are within existing Memphis City Schools – Gordon and Lester elementary schools.

Leaders of the Achievement School District will announce Dec. 17 which 10 of the 14 middle and elementary schools under consideration they will include in the district, which ones of the 10 will be run directly by the district, and which will ones be run by the charters.

Most of the 70 people at the university Tuesday evening were teachers at the schools under consideration.

Malika Anderson, chief portfolio officer of the district, said the concentration in a community of failing schools – described by state education officials as “priority” schools – was how the 14 Memphis schools were selected from 68 in the city that are the majority of the bottom 5 percent of schools in the entire state in terms of student achievement.

“We identified those schools that are next to or in the neighborhood with the highest concentration of priority schools,” she said. “There are some neighborhoods where all of the middle schools and most of the elementary schools are priority schools. We’re going there. That’s how we got to all of the schools that are represented in this room.”

The question of how the schools were selected has been a frequent question at the series of public meetings that began last week.

“The schools that are in the bottom 5 percent – the priority schools where 6,000 of our children are being served everyday – have an average of about 10 percent proficiency,” Anderson said in talking about students who perform at their grade level in reading and math. “There are some schools in this group of 14 who are in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of priority schools who might be at 14 percent or 16 percent proficiency. That is not good enough. From our perspective a priority school is a priority school.”

Broken out in groups by the community they came from, those at the session met separately with each of the five providers.

The groups asked the providers about teacher pay and benefits. Retirement continues to be part of the state government system because charter schools are public schools.

The charter school companies also emphasized the former Memphis City Schools teachers working with them as parents and other teachers asked repeatedly what they knew about Memphis and their communities.

“We heard you loud and clear,” Anderson said earlier of similar questions at the three Monday evening forums. “We are not all the same.”

Derwin Sisnett of Gestalt Community Schools, the operator of Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill and the Achievement School District charter school at Gordon Elementary, said Gestalt is an “agile” organization that can adapt to communities it works in.

“If the community doesn’t want us, then we didn’t make the case to be there,” he told one group of parents and teachers.

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