For the first time ever, Shelby County School leaders met Wednesday evening with a school community to talk about what it means to be on the Tennessee Department of Education’s school priority list.

What it means is that the school falls in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools for student achievement. It also means that the school is eligible for state intervention, allowing the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) to take away control — and students — from the local district and to assign the school to a charter operator in an effort to turn it around.

“We’ve done a bad job — we meaning myself and the administration of Shelby County Schools — over the past few years of keeping our communities informed,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told about 100 people at Hawkins Mill Elementary School, one of 11 priority schools eligible for ASD takeover in Memphis. (See our list of the schools here.)

“What we wanted to do this year was make sure that we came out, talked to schools that were on the priority list, and provide some feedback as to what that means, what the options are, and kind of the path moving forward,” Hopson said.

The gathering was the first of five community meetings being hosted by the district during the next two weeks at eligible priority schools — and the first time that district leaders have chosen to go on the offense in the dialogue over state intervention. In the past, district leaders tried to stay out of the process and left interactions between the school communities and ASD leaders.

“What we’ve learned in the past few years is, when a school is on the priority list and the ASD comes in and decides to operate at a school, it causes a lot of concern and questions in the community and it also raises a lot of questions,” Hopson said. “We want to be much more proactive this year in terms of answering those questions on the front end and then supporting schools and being with schools every step of the way.”

In the gathering before parents, faculty and other neighborhood stakeholders, district leaders explained that the state Department of Education issues its priority school list every three years, most recently in 2014.

“If you’re on the state’s priority list — and Hawkins Mill is on the priority list — or your (TVAAS) growth levels are 1, 2, or 3 (out of a possible 5), you are eligible for the ASD,” Assistant Superintendent Angela Whitelaw told the crowd.

She explained the ASD’s new matching process, which includes a neighborhood advisory council comprised of parents, educators and community members who review potential charter operators who have applied for a match.

“We’re asking parents and the community to be involved in this process,” Whitelaw told the gathering. “This is the process where you get to participate in what’s happening at your school, what’s happening in this community.”

ASD officials say the new process, which will unfold in the next four months, is designed for greater community engagement and that advisory council members will vote on their school’s future.

Hawkins Mill, a school of about 350 students in the city’s Frayser community, has struggled to boost student scores on its own. On last spring’s TCAP exams, only 16 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in reading/language arts, while almost 37 percent were proficient or advanced in math.

Principal Antonio Harvey described his administration’s plans to increase those scores going forward. Last year, teachers received additional professional development and offered student tutoring before and after school and on some Saturdays. This year, the school has added a literacy coach, math coach and literacy support teacher to help students prepare for the state’s new TNReady assessment, which will be administered next spring.

Rather than ask questions, most parents who came to the podium Wednesday lamented the sparse parental attendance at the district-sponsored gathering.

Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.
Hawkins Mill parent Alicia Tomlinson speaks to the gathering of some parents but mostly teachers.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kayleigh Skinner

“I think it was awesome for you to go over what your plan is for my child and the rest of the children here,” Alicia Tomlinson told Harvey. “I just wish there were more parents. There are more teachers and staff here than parents. You can’t do it by yourself.”

Stephanie Love, a member of the Shelby County Board of Education, said the district needs to encourage more parental involvement. She said many parents don’t trust the district because they were misinformed during the ASD’s takeover process in previous years.

“Parents don’t trust us and that’s the truth,” Love said. “We’re trying to make a difference by being involved to show our parents, ‘Hey! We’re here, we’re going to support you!'”

Harvey called on parents to work with their children to help the school get off the state’s priority list.

“As you go home this evening, think about this,” he implored. “What is your investment? What are you going to put in to keep Hawkins Mill from being taken over by the ASD?”

The remaining gatherings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m.:

  • Thursday, Aug. 20 – Caldwell Guthrie Elementary School
  • Monday, Aug. 24 – Sheffield Elementary School
  • Wednesday, Aug. 26 – Raleigh Egypt Middle School
  • Monday, Aug. 31 – Kirby Middle School