Is it leadership, ineffective and insensitive teachers, cultural insensitivity, or all of the above?
All were touted as reasons of concern when a packed house of parents, children, religious leaders, educators and community advocates convened Saturday (Feb. 23) to participate in a legislative hearing chaired by State Rep. G.A. Hardaway Jr., at the Lester Community Center.
Time did not permit all to voice their concerns, but the 3½-hour buzz included testimonies from 12 parents, a current teacher, a former teacher, a minister and a community activist. Their stories reflected concerns about alleged inequities and unfair treatment impacting kindergarten through third graders at Cornerstone Prep Academy's Lester Campus.
Allegations mushroomed after the state-run Achievement School District approved Cornerstone Prep as the charter operation to reverse Lester School's failing test scores. Meanwhile, administrators and staff have continued to stand up for Cornerstone, pointing to a positive results in the classroom and on standardize tests.
Unlike an earlier community meeting where police were called to assure order, Saturday's session an orderly and professionally facilitated affair. Hardaway made sure of that. He spent 10 minutes explaining how he hosts meetings, establishing parameters by which those testifying would adhere, and even telling the audience not to laugh or applaud.
Everyone complied. It felt and looked like a legislative confirmation hearing on CSPAN.
Hearing panelists were State Rep. Barbara Cooper, State Sen. Brian Kelsey, ASD Supt. Chris Barbic, and School Board Commissioner Sara Lewis.
"Our goal here today is to gather information. This is a fact-finding meeting," said Hardaway. "It's not a debate one way or the other. We'll gather information from those who testify and refer it to the appropriate agencies. Everything you tell us today needs to be factual."
Parents were respectful as they shared testimonies of embarrassment and humiliation suffered by their children. Some parents were not comfortable in testifying before a large crowd. They, as well as some children, presented statements or testified in private.
The general consensus of those testifying dealt with issues of teachers having no control in the classrooms and restrictive rules on bathroom breaks that caused children to have repeated accidents before teachers acknowledged them.
Other complaints included three teachers to a classroom, and teachers who were too young, inexperienced and not certified. Some speculated that teachers had no children of their own and could not relate to the students.
Rep. Cooper drew upon her 30-plus years as a retired public school educator.
"Often teachers need training on how to deal with students," said Cooper. "It's lack of training and professional certification. Some are not certified and some just don't know how to handle children."
Karen Walker was among 12 former Lester Elementary School teachers who attended the hearing. She said none of the types of problems that drew parents' complaints occurred during her 28 years as a teacher at Lester.
"As a teacher, we knew the parents well enough to address them by their first names. They might not have sent us Rhodes Scholars but we worked with what they brought us," said Walker. "We had to build a community in our classroom and not just within the community....
"We should be listening to these kids. We have to deal with what we've got and you have to listen to the kids," said Walker. "Kids know when you love them and every kid has to know that they are loved."
Dr. Herenton's report
Former mayor and future charter school administrator, Dr. Willie W. Herenton, attended the earlier meeting and had committed to talk with Gov. Bill Haslam about the stated concerns. On Saturday, he was back with a report.
"I promised to make contact with the governor to express your concerns. I'm old school, a man whose word is his bond," said Herenton. "Before speaking to the governor, I wrote down my concerns, indicating that I saw evidence of lack of respect, trust, transparency and poor communications (at the school)."
According to Herenton, Haslam said, "Tell the media we had an open and candid conversation. I think we're doing a good job in Memphis."
The governor, said Herenton, "never asked me, 'Willie, Dr. Herenton, do you think there is any credence to the complaints being levied by the parents? Is there any credence to the teacher's behavior?'
"He never asked what I saw or thought. I left the conversation with the feeling that he was indifferent, apathetic and totally indifferent."
As Herenton was about to make his exit three hours into the meeting, one of the remaining parents popped this question:
"If you are in support of Dr. Herenton taking over Lester and running it as a charter school, come forward and let your support be known."
Fifteen people stepped forward. Dr. Herenton was clearly surprised.
Supt. Barbic spoke after all testimonies were taken.
"This is the second public meeting I've attended. I want this to be right," said Barbic.
"It has to be both building relationships and academic performance. We have some work to do. It's not perfect, but we're working incredibly hard to make this happen. We really want to get this right."