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By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -
With the sun bearing down, Bobby White and his team in "Find me in Frayser" T-shirts fanned out across Todd Creek Apartments Monday, knocking on doors and trying to build instant rapport with the women who answered.
"Do you have children who will be in elementary school in the fall?" asks Theodore King, sweat pooling in the furrows of his brow. "Are you interested in hearing more about the Achievement School District?"
One by one, door by door Monday morning, the women signed on, netting White's team 26 pre-registrants in an hour for Corning Elementary down the street.
"What we're trying to do is signal that this a new day in education for Frayser," says White, the beloved Westside Middle principal who left his post this spring to help lead efforts for the achievement district in Frayser.
The same canvass will unfurl Tuesday in Pleasant View and Whitney Manor, as ASD leaders walk Frayser apartments, trying to get a read on the number of students to expect when school opens in August.
In a few weeks, a parade of 90 teachers and staff will walk through Todd Creek again, part of a mass parade of support for the people who live in Frayser apartments. The ASD summer finale is a community block party — with food and music — at Frayser Elementary on July 21.
School leaders walking the rutted roads where they live are hoping parents believe better things are possible for their children and enroll them.
"If your children come to school 92 percent of the time, if they don't have behavior problems and if we can count on your involvement, we'll get them to college," King tells Ashley Young, who stepped out of her apartment in a T-shirt and drawstring bottoms to get something from the car. "We're not even talking about graduating from high school. That's a given."
The achievement school district is the state's experiment in moving schools from the bottom 5 percent into the top 25 percent in five years. The school day will be longer. So will the school year.
On paper, Frayser is the most likely starting place. Eleven of its 14 public schools run by Memphis City Schools rank in the bottom 5 percent of all Tennessee public schools.
Starting in August, the ASD, under the direction of Supt. Chris Barbic, will run Corning and Frayser elementaries and Westside Middle.
While Barbic doesn't say this publicly, the trick is getting parents with some means — financial, mental or simply a working mode of transportation — to enroll their children with him. Without them, his three Frayser schools could quickly fill up with behavioral problems and disengaged parents, death for reformists needing to hit an early success out of the park.
"Those families that understand the importance of education and have the capacity to do research, they are making other choices. They do have options," said Rev. Anthony Anderson, executive director of Memphis Business Academy charter school, also in Frayser.
"Those are the families the ASD doesn't want to lose. They have to do this groundwork to keep those families in the system, otherwise they'll end up with something in Frayser that is going to be a challenge."
Anderson estimates he's gotten about 15 percent of the target families in his startup sixth-grade class for this fall, an indication, he says, that the ASD message is not entirely penetrating.
Young, mother of a rising fifth-grader, has received several calls from ASD, plus mailings. She's looking forward to a better year for her daughter. "Last year was rough," she says.
"This is not Memphis City Schools with a new name," King tells her.
King tells another parent that ASD teachers are "at will employees. That means we can fire them," he says. "If you're not getting results, you just can't take 27 years off until you retire."
All the teachers in the Frayser schools had to reapply for their jobs this spring. As a result, the majority will be new to the community this fall.
"The reasons are twofold," White says. "Many of the teachers at these schools had so many years seniority. They would have taken a pay cut to stay," he says. "That is the major reason.
"Number two, with the new leadership, lots of the teachers wanted a new start somewhere else. They left to do that."
Parent Tequala Isom is happy with the change. "It was good to take all the teachers out and start over. I think this is great."