Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sorry Gordon Parents, the Decision Was Made Last Spring

The Achievement School District's public relations staff has been working hard to make you think that they are involved in a community engagement process that will inform the ASD's decision making process on which 10 of the 14 schools to takeover and turnaround, and which charter groups will take which schools.  That's their "community matching" process. 

The song and dance got off to a disastrous start with parents declining to engage in "break-out sessions" and peppering ASD officials with hostile questions.  Since the initial roll-out of community meetings on November 8 and the week of November 12, the ASD has been on radio silence.  We should take them at their word that their Achievement Advisory Commission has been meeting in private to decide on their recommendations for which schools to take over.  But that process has not been public.  We've been told to expect the AAC's recommendations the week of December 10, with the state's actual decision to come the week of December 17.

Should we be surprised to find out that at least some of the decisions have already been made?  That there's been a shadow process running parallel to the public process?  That the decisions were not public at the time that they were made?  That the ASD and MCS cut a deal?

The first thing to understand is that the ASD is not only a turnaround model.  Five of its six schools in this, its first year, are pretty strict turnarounds.  The ASD has taken over, or partially taken over, five school buildings with the students in it.  But one of those schools, the Gordon Science and Arts Academy, run by Gestalt, did not take over an existing school.  GSAA is a middle school that serves only children that were previously attending bottom 5% schools, and pulls from several middle schools - instead of simply taking over an existing middle school.  GSAA is housed within an under-enrolled elementary school - Gordon Elementary School.

What we found at last Thursday's Special Call meeting on the school closures is that the ASD wanted to takeover Humes Middle School.  The ASD does not need cooperation from the school district in deciding what schools to take over, but in this case, it seems that the ASD granted Superintendent Kriner Cash's request not to take Humes.  It's on the closure list now with less than 20% enrollment, but Dr. Cash does not intend that the building be shuttered.  Humes, attended by Elvis Presley, is the subject of a new proposal to turn it into a music and arts optional school.  Seems that MCS just didn't want to let go of that storied building.  So they cut a deal.  The ASD wanted middle school kids, but agreed not to take Humes.  This resulted in the special situation at Gordon Elementary.

According to parent and teacher speakers at last week's Special Call meeting, teachers and families were assured that this unusual situation would not affect Gordon Elementary students going forward - that it was just a matter of cohabitation.  Gordon Elementary is not in the bottom 5%, so imagine parents' and teachers' surprise to find out that Gordon Elementary Could be closed, and that the Gordon Elementary School building would be given over to the ASD - to be used by the expanding Gordon Science and Arts Academy. 

This. Counts.  This counts as a school closed so that it can used by the ASD.  It's not a takeover of an existing school because of poor performance.  This is MCS cutting a deal to save the Humes building, that involves giving over a non-bottom-5% school building to a "school district" that's supposed to be turning around only bottom-5% schools.  Sorry, Gordon Elementary, you're the sacrificial lamb - without the courtesy of an ASD community engagement process (non-courteous though that process may be).

As if all of that weren't bad enough.  MCS cut this deal last school year.  And they told a lot of people.  Not the teachers and parents affected by the deal, but a lot of other people.  Including The Boston Consulting Group.

Yes, Gordon Elementary School parents and teachers, MCS told BCG (and the TPC) before giving any indication to you of their intentions.  How do we know?  Attached to last week's Special Call meeting agenda was a previously unreleased document generated by BCG.  (It's available on the Shelby County School Board website, but I've downloaded it and reposted it just to keep it publicly available.)  The document is the mystery list of possible school closures that make up BCG's TPC Recommendation #113.  It's dated June 20, 2012. 

On Page Eight of the June BCG presentation, Gordon Elementary is listed as under-enrolled with the designation "becoming an ASD charter".

We know that the Page Eight listing is not exactly correct because it also lists Cypress Middle School as "becoming an ASD charter".  This is, apparently, no longer the case.  But it was disclosed to someone at BCG either by someone at the ASD or by someone at MCS.  It is currently unclear why Cypress Middle was spared by the ASD.  But we now know why Gordon Elementary is not being spared.

It's possible that the Shelby County School Board could still save Gordon Elementary - the vote on whether to include Gordon on the list was closer than on the other schools.  Gordon is still under-enrolled - at around 50% capacity when we don't count the GSAA kids.  Gordon Elementary may or may not be an appropriate school closure on its own merits.  But taking into account this "deal" that has only now been made public, Memphis City Schools, Dr. Cash, and the ASD all suffer hits to their credibility in the important discussions about what schools should be closed and which schools will be taken over by the ASD.

It's easy to be paranoid about conspiracies in the current environment.  But, sorry to say, Gordon Elementary:  it's not paranoia if they're actually after you.

Jan. 20, 2013 UPDATE:  Gordon Elementary Got Its Pardon


  1. I am curious. On page 5 of the TPC report from BCG, one of the recommended paths for closing the fiscal gap is "contribution from charter schools". How does a non-profit organization provide monies to help close the fiscal gap?

    1. Watching in MemphisDecember 9, 2012 at 8:22 PM

      My understanding is that it has to do with the district providing some services to the charter school - like custodial, cafeteria, transportation, etc. The district basically becomes a contractor (or vendor) for the charter school, and that charter school pays for the services.

  2. I think you are mistaken about the Gordon/Humes situation. The GSAA charter school is actually following the same model as the other ASD schools - they are what was Humes Middle 6th grade. The only difference is that they aren't in the Humes building. No other students are zoned there, although others can choose to transfer there.

    What would your preferred solution here be? Would you like the ASD to have the Humes building? Per state law, that's the normal process. If not, then you have to find a building for them. Cash is offering the Gordon Elem building. If you don't want to the ASD to have Humes, and you don't want them to have Gordon, what building would you prefer? It has to be one of the schools in the area.

    1. Watching in MemphisDecember 9, 2012 at 8:17 PM

      IF that is true, that GSAA is currently made up of students that would have been assigned to Humes for 6th grade, and that Humes, therefore, does not have a 6th grade, then what you're really suggesting is that this decision about Gordon was made in late 2011 or earlier in 2012 than I guessed.

      My objections to this Gordon situation are actually two-fold. This particular post was not actually about my main objection to the ASD - which is that I just don't believe that the turnaround model is actually supported by any data, and that where some improvements in student achievement were attained, they were not sustainable and not replicated. But that's another post for another day.

      This post is about the process. I understand the state law - which, let's be clear - was specifically modified in order to get the Race to the Top funds. The current state law, which allows the ASD to function in the manner in which it does, is new. You have probably already guessed that I oppose this particular version of the law. So I'm not interested in trying to find some other school for the ASD to take over, since it has, apparently, agreed politically speaking that taking over Humes is unwise. I don't think the ASD should exist, much less be in a position to take over local schools.

      Yes, the ASD could have just taken Humes. And I would have all of the same objections.

      But let's get back to my process objection. Superintendent Chris Barbic and state Commissioner Kevin Huffman are clearly not familiar with how government works. They are used to working for private entities that may have a Board of Directors, but that are not, in any way, accountable to voters or taxpayers. Good government, which both claim to want to be a part of, requires an open process with public discussion of government proposals. This post is about their apparent inability to engage in an actual open dialogue with the public.

      I'm not happy that Dr. Cash went this particular route to try to keep the Humes building out of state control, but I cut him some slack for doing what he has to do. He's having to deal with reaping what he sowed now that the Board has questions about how all of this unfolded. His unilateral decision to sacrifice Gordon to save Humes may or may not be ratified by the School Board.

  3. This post is about the process. I understand the state law - which, let's be clear - was specifically modified in order to get the Race to the Top funds.
    Public Relations