Tension was thick enough to cut with a knife as highly concerned parents, students, teachers and community supporters gathered in the auditorium of Southside Middle School on Monday (Sept. 16) to discuss the possibility of an association with the Achievement School District.
A quarrelsome atmosphere led to difficult questions and random outbursts towards Elliot Smalley, an ASD representative.
"How y'all going to make our school better if it has already gotten better?" asked a Southside Middle student.
Frequently interrupted, Smalley was unable to answer many questions and convey ASD goals because of brash remarks from audience members.
"Charter schools are for money, not our kids. Education is supposed to be free!"
And, "Why are y'all trying to kill our future...to go to college?"
Thirty minutes into the meeting, angry attendees stormed out of the auditorium.
The ASD is a statewide school district committed to moving schools in the bottom five percent in Tennessee to the top 25 percent in five years.
The forum at Southside Middle was among three "engagement process" sessions held Monday, with ASD leaders fanning out to listen to parents, teachers and community members and share plans for the schools ASD wants to add to the district for the 2014-15 school year. Last week, the ASD released its short list of schools (nine ASD-eligible schools, eight will be chosen). A final decision is expected on December 13.
Southside is among 68 schools in Memphis in the bottom five percent of the lowest performing schools. Although the school is listed as a "Level 5" school with improved test scores from last school year, Southside (and the other 67 schools) were selected based on a poor three-year performance, and placed on the state priority list back in 2011.
"I want to know why we are just hearing about this," said Christine Mudalige, a 6th grade language arts teacher, "They said the data came from 2011, so why is it that when we show gains, it doesn't matter?"
This is Mudalige's second year teaching at Southside.
"We are confused. The parents want us (teachers) to be here and we want to be here. Why bother us if we have made gains. Go find another school that is performing worse than we are," she said.
Isaiah May from Light of South Memphis was one of many community supporters who attended and showed much concern.
"I'm a little concerned with the statistics," said May. "If ASD is here to make a positive change, and their objective is to move a bottom five percent school to the top 25 percent, if this school is understood to be a level 5, how much higher can it go?"
Smalley talked with The New Tri-State Defender later, emphasizing the freedom that ASD brings to a school operation.
"Our key thing is freedom for schools, teachers, school leaders and parents to operate their time, resources, money, and what they decide to do with that," said Smalley.
"We find that when you look across the spectrum of schools that have that local-level control and power, they tend to make a decision based on their child's needs."
Smalley acknowledged that the first conversation at Southside Middle did not go well.
The ASD hopes that communities throughout Memphis will be open-minded to how the special district wants to go forward in improving test results at its designated schools. The strategy includes taking advantage of every opportunity to allow the ASD Volunteer Advisory Council to speak to parents and students.