Achievement School District Adds High School

By Bill Dries

The state-run Achievement School District ventures into high school territory in August with the start of its second school year.

Thanks to success at the elementary and middle school level, the state-run Achievement School District – which includes Frayser Elementary School, pictured here – is adding a high school in August with a new digitally based school that emphasizes science and math and adds art to the mix.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

Most of the ASD schools for the lowest 5 percent in the state in terms of student achievement are in Memphis. And so far, those schools, either run directly by the district or through charter school operators, are in elementary and middle schools.

Starting in August, GRAD Academy will open at South Side Middle School, 1880 Prospect Ave., in South Memphis with 175 ninth graders.

Houston-based United School Districts runs GRAD Academy. It is to be a college preparatory high school with a focus on technology and a unique curriculum that adds arts to the familiar STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – format for what is called a STEAM emphasis.

“Our students need art. … Our students live in a digital world,” said Stephanie Hill, the dean of students at the school. “So the opportunities you create by adding art to STEM is you add digital arts class or you can have students doing graphic animation. The possibilities are really endless. When you think about engineering, engineering needs art. You could have classes like geo-art, geometry and art together.”

The result, according to Hill, is a “very, very dynamic school.”

“We’re going to provide them with laptops,” she said. “We’re going to provide parents with real-time access so they can track their students’ progress. We’re going to be evaluating our students’ critical thinking skills.”

The laptops are necessary for software and other technology that not only guides the school day but also the direction classes take, especially when subject areas merge.

“A lot of our curriculum material will be online,” Hill said. “When they come in during the day, they will be able to see their agenda for the entire day for every single class they are going to.”

Like other Achievement School District schools, GRAD Academy has to enroll its students. When GRAD USA leaders made their first foray into Memphis last November the academy was unveiled as an option for students in 15 Memphis high schools.

“Our hypothesis is that students in South Memphis may be most interested in it just from a geography standpoint,” said Daryl Ogden, CEO of Project GRAD USA. “But it’s open to any students in Memphis that is zoned in an ASD school.”

Hill and others with the academy began their enrollment effort Saturday, May 18, at Mount Moriah Baptist Church with a meet and greet for parents in the area with basic information.

“Our class sessions will be longer than some in the average school,” Hill said of the school’s 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. school day. “We have integrated classes where we are combining subject areas with content standards aligned to a single class. That way our students will also be able to see how subjects integrate.”

The first 50 students enrolled in GRAD Academy start with summer school of a sort called “Freedom School.” It is a six-week summer enrichment session designed and funded by the Children’s Defense Fund.

Hill described it as a literacy-based program that hires college students as tutors and “a bridge for students to acclimate them to our rigorous academic culture.”

GRAD USA is partnering with New Tech Network, a Napa, Calif., nonprofit organization that works with schools and school districts on project-based learning – an emphasis on projects across subject areas that emphasizes critical thinking skills. And the approach is rooted in digital equipment and networks that are essential to the learning environment.

New Tech, which also operates its own schools and works with established schools, is a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks.

President Barack Obama visited the New Tech Network school in Austin, Texas, earlier this month to push the $300 million education initiative in his budget to redesign high schools.

There is also a New Tech Network school in Blytheville, Ark., scheduled to open in the fall.