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    Community involvement urged to help rescue failing Frayser schools

    Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    When Westside Middle School was "tagged" by a gang last year, LifeLine to Success volunteers arrived the next day to walk the Frayser neighborhood with principal Bobby White and clean up the graffiti.

    "This stuff may seem small, but every small piece is needed in order to get where we are going," White said Thursday in a town hall meeting led by the U.S. Department of Education and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

    Frayser is one of six "demonstration sites" around the nation for Together for Tomorrow, a campaign the Obama administration unveiled in late February to improve community participation in chronically poor schools.

    Detroit, Denver, New Orleans, Orlando and New Haven, Conn., are also participating.

    "We need to help build capacity for schools to manage partnerships," said Michael Robbins, senior adviser for nonprofit partnerships with the U.S. Department of Education.

    "All too often, there is a disconnect between the real needs of schools and the resources in the community," he said.

    While there is no federal funding for the project, seven AmeriCorps VISTA workers have been assigned to Frayser schools. Ten additional part-time members will arrive this summer.

    Their job is to identify student and faculty needs and match them to public resources.

    When it comes to turning around failing schools, "the federal government can't do it alone; the state can't do it. It takes every citizen," U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen told 60-plus people in the audience, which included representatives from churches and community groups.

    "We're going to teach financial literacy in the middle school," said Steve Lockwood, director of Frayser Community Development Corp.

    "We'll take a busload of middle school kids out to see the effects of predatory lending on the community."

    Lockwood also hopes to move forward on a his long-dreamed-of plan to dismantle the chain-link fence with concertina wire across the street from the school and plant a Christmas tree farm on the eight acres of abandoned land on the other side.

    The emphasis on community involvement in Frayser schools ties into the recent announcement that the state will manage three Frayser schools -- Corning Elementary, Frayser Elementary and Westside Middle -- starting in the fall.

    All three are in the Achievement School District, a statewide school district of schools scoring in the bottom 5 percent on state tests.

    Of the 85 schools in Tennessee that fit the criteria, 69 are in Memphis.

    Frayser has the highest concentration of any community in the state; 11 of its 14 public schools are failing.

    "Our goal is to flip those numbers on their head and to start to take advantage of the community assets that exist here," said Chris Barbic, superintendent of the achievement schools.

    He wants the community to feel they are part of the ASD, "not like it's a top-down thing happening to Frayser."

    "We are creating an opportunity for people to get involved."

    -- Jane Roberts: (901) 529-2512

    Want to volunteer?

    Call Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic with your ideas for helping low-performing schools in Frayser, (615) 509- 4956.