Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cornerstone Has Juice. Real Juice.

Well, I might have spoken too soon.  I'll confess that I might have gloated a little bit that Cornerstone Prep just didn't seem to measure up to the ASD's standards.  I left myself some wiggle room, but the ASD has surprised even me, a person who is very cynical about how the ASD operates.  And operate it does.

So let's back up - here's the Commercial Appeal's coverage of the ASD's announcement that it would take over 10 schools from a list of 14.  Then, the ASD announced that it would take over six schools, either by taking the schools into the ASD or by assigning the schools to private charter management organizations.  I was astonished that Cornerstone Prep was not on the list, since it had been one of the four charter management organizations that was to be considered by the Achievement Advisory Council.  Based on the announcements from the ASD and the AAC last week, it appeared that Cornerstone would not be expanding.

It seemed to me that one of three things was happening:  Cornerstone didn't make the cut, Cornerstone had withdrawn from consideration, or it would become clear that a deal had been cut.

It has become clear that a deal has been cut.  And the ASD has been shadier than I expected.

Yesterday, the ASD linked to its blog from facebook, with an announcement that Cornerstone was expanding.  Here's the post, dated yesterday, December 18.  That link takes you to Cornerstone's page, where there's a story dated Friday, December 14, announcing that it would be taking over Lester Middle School.  The plan has shifted from completing the take over of Lester Elementary next year, going from K-3 to K-5 next year, to going to K-6 next year, 2013-14.  Then the following year, 2014-15, Cornerstone will add 7th and 8th grade, taking care of preK-8 in 2014-15.  Cornerstone writes:  "The Achievement School District (ASD) has just approved Cornerstone Prep to transform the Lester Middle School beginning next year. Cornerstone Prep will be leading pre-Kindergarten through sixth grade for 2013-2014 and then will be responsible for the entire school, pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade the following year.  This allows Cornerstone Prep to serve every child in the Lester Elementary School district in 2014 and then every sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade child in the entire Binghampton community the following year."

So last Friday, Cornerstone made the announcement, but the ASD delayed making the announcement until yesterday.  This, despite, a press conference held on Friday with great fanfare.  Why didn't ASD Supt. Chris Barbic make the announcement about Lester Middle at the same time as the other announcements?

Seems to me it likely had to do with the fact that Lester Middle was not on the list of 14 schools that the ASD stated that it was considering.  I suspect that the ASD would tell us that the takeover of Lester Middle is not until 2014-15, so that would be why it's not on this year's list of considered schools.  But Lester Middle does include 6th graders, who will be joining the ASD next year, 2013-14.  So the takeover is beginning next year.

In the clip of Supt. Barbic on the news tonight, he stated that the decision to takeover Lester Middle was not taken lightly, and that Lester Middle is the second worst performing school in the state.  I'm paraphrasing - he wouldn't call it a takeover, but the rest is near verbatim.  But in terms of open government, this is a Fail, no?  The ASD failed to disclose to the public that Lester Middle was on its shortlist for takeover, and failed to hold any public meetings in Binghampton or inform the media that Binghampton was among the neighborhoods/feeder patterns that could be affected by the ASD's actions for 2013-14.

Unfortunately for Cornerstone and for the ASD, the first opportunity that our Binghampton neighbors had to speak on whether or not they wanted the ASD was last night's School Board meeting.  And speak they did.  Upwards of 15 adults, sporting matching black shirts with yellow writing, protested Cornerstone's expansion and its current treatment of students, with at least 8 individuals speaking against Cornerstone during the public comment section.  The most dramatic moment was the 7 year old girl who described her humiliation at wetting herself several times in front of her classmates because of her teacher's refusal to grant bathroom permission, and the taunting that she received as a result.  She also described attempting to tie her shoes at the "wrong time," and having to walk around the school in her socks for the rest of the day after her shoes were confiscated as punishment.  The 7 year old's mother complained about those incidents and questioned who had helped her daughter change into borrowed clothes.

Another parent stated that none of the staff or teachers at Cornerstone had children attending Cornerstone, that the students were treated as if they are in bootcamp, and that the Cornerstone folks would not allow their children to be treated that way.  This speaker resonated with me because that exact issue has been one of my complaints about the common charter school approach - which I find unnecessarily and inappropriately regimented, in a way that just wouldn't fly in communities with better schools.

NBA star Penny Hardaway accompanied the entire Lester Middle basketball team in a show of support for the neighborhood and Lester Middle.

Every speaker on the subject was roundly applauded - and they were uniformly in opposition to Cornerstone Prep's expansion to Lester Middle.  Well - almost uniformly - one speaker's only objection was to changing the name from Lester to Cornerstone.  Several speakers mentioned that issue - losing the tradition of the neighborhood by removing "Lester" from the name of the school - but they all mentioned treatment of the students and opposition to the ASD and Cornerstone.

This was unfortunate all around, mainly because the Binghampton supporters of Lester were complaining to a government body that has absolutely no input on whether the ASD takes over the Binghampton neighborhood schools, and no ability to remedy any of the problems at Cornerstone.  I'm not convinced that the ASD has the ability to remedy any of the problems at Cornerstone, since Cornerstone has an independent Board of Directors that does not really report to the ASD in a formal way.  It's the age-old charter school accountability problem - public money with little to no public input.

It's also important to note that the ASD has changed its approach to public meetings.  No longer are the meeting dates and times broadcast to the entire Memphis community.  Instead, they send out letters to parents and teachers at the affected school.  I, therefore, was not aware that the ASD hosted its first meeting on this topic in Binghampton tonight - until I saw it on the news.  You have to ask whether that is to push down attendance at public ASD meetings.

And don't we also have to ask how Cornerstone is able to take over a school that had not previously been named as a possibility?  Nothing like a prominent East Memphis church with politically connected funders to allow a newly-minted charter school to move mountains.

It's unclear when the deal between Cornerstone and the ASD was cut outside of the announced process.  Perhaps it wasn't that the AAC chose not to recommend Cornerstone on its list - perhaps the ASD informed members of the AAC that they didn't need to worry about Cornerstone because the ASD would take of it?  We will likely never know because the ASD has deemed that AAC as not having to abide by the state's sunshine laws, and no minutes of any of the meetings have been published.

Hoping to see more coverage in tomorrow's papers about tonight's meeting in Binghampton.  I'm interested to know how the ASD explained itself and its decision making process that ended up being so different from its stated intentions.  I'm also interested to know how Cornerstone and the ASD responded to the allegations of student mistreatment - you know, since they're not required to provide a public answer at all.  Here's Jane Roberts' coverage of the meeting, titled:  Memphis Parents Lash Out Against ASD Leaders.

Once again, I'm in the position of almost feeling bad for the ASD folks.  Almost.  But not quite.


  1. Can you offer some more details about the ASD not being subject to open government laws? I'm just flabbergasted that this is legal. It's meetings aren't open, and it's not subject to open records requests? This is astonishing.

    1. My understanding is that the ASD is subject the usual open records requests, but that the executive branch (of which the ASD and the Dept. of Ed.) is not required to hold open meetings.

      I was referring to the AAC, the ASD's appointed committee. I looked at it the same way I look at the TPC - if there are more than 2 of them in a room, it has to be disclosed publicly as a public meeting and posted 48 hours in advance of the meeting. I attended an ASD meeting where a question was asked about whether the sunshine laws apply to the AAC, and the ASD government official informed the group that the sunshine rules did not apply.

      The ASD's policy about how to invite people to its neighborhood meetings is a different matter altogether. I'm sure that the ASD would tell us that they are public meetings, and that no one is turned away. For me, the problem is how to find out about the meetings - since they are not posted on the ASD website. The media is finding out about them, so that's good, but it's very difficult for the general, interested public to find out about them.

    2. This is just unbelievable. Does the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government have any objections to this? What you have described is clearly an attempt to keep people in the dark.