Amid Questions And Uncertainty, Meetings Over Nashville School Takeover Turn Combative

Cari Hassell-Morrows, who has two children at Madison Middle School, asks questions about the possibility of conversion to a charter school. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Cari Hassell-Morrows, who has two children at Madison Middle School, asks questions about the possibility of conversion to a charter school. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Meetings at Nashville’s Madison and Neely’s Bend middle schools — over which of the two low-performing schools will be taken over by the state — turned contentious Thursday night. The nearly two-hour discussions attracted parents, teachers, school officials and a handful of students.

At Madison, the cafeteria was calm when the meeting started. On one side were a group of parents whose children went to LEAD schools, the charter operator that might take over Madison. On the other side, the boys’ basketball team held up red signs saying “No Thank You.”

Agnese Henderson, whose son will be going to Madison next year, sat somewhere in the middle. She said she’s hesitant about the possible change.

“So far, I’m not impressed,” she said. “I don’t feel that this is something that’s going to benefit our family or the teachers who have been teaching my children.”

A member of the boys basketball team holds a sign opposing the Achievement School District, which would take over the school's operation. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

A member of the boys’ basketball team holds a sign opposing the Achievement School District, which would take over the school’s operation. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

But the meeting started to get tense as concerned parents spoke out.

“We don’t need an Achievement School District,” said mother Cari Hassell-Morrow amid cheers. “We don’t need a charter school.”

The head of LEAD Public Schools, Chris Reynolds, repeatedly reassured parents that Madison would remain a neighborhood school, where students in the area get first priority. He pointed to Brick Church College Prep, which LEAD has begun to convert to a charter school, as an example.

Conversion schools “have had extraordinary results taking a school that’s been chronically low-performing and turning it into an incredibly strong college preparatory school,” Reynolds said. “We’re very proud of that work, and we’re confident that we can bring a success like that to Madison or Neely’s Bend.”

At one point, Chris Barbic, who oversees the state takeovers of low-performing public schools, got into an argument over testing data with school board member Jill Speering. The audience booed. Later, Speering and a section of the crowd chanted “No ASD!”*

Afterward, Barbic said he thought the meeting was “pretty typical” for a group of people who want the best for kids — but don’t agree on what that means.

At Neely's Bend, Elliot Smalley represented the Achievement School District and fielded questions from parents and teachers. Credit: David Wright Smith / WPLN

At Neely’s Bend, Elliot Smalley represented the Achievement School District and fielded questions from parents and teachers. Credit: David Wright Smith / WPLN

A similar discussion was happening three miles away at Neely’s Bend. Adrienne Fehringer, a special education teacher at the school, was one of about 200 people to attend the meeting.

“I just feel like they [parents] don’t really know what is happening, and what’s going on, and what this is going to look like,” she said. “Neither do we. We’re just trying to find out.”

Many parents who spoke saw the potential relationship with LEAD as more of a hostile take over than a partnership.

“We got to Neelys Bend, he found a family,” Neely’s Bend parent Krishonda Lanier said of her son. “He has a team here. These people love him. They care for him.”

Over the next week LEAD will host parents at several open houses at two of its existing campuses where the charter organization has converted other schools – Brick Church College Prep and Cameron College Prep.

David Wright Smith contributed to this report.

*Editor’s note: We previously wrote that Jill Speering led the “No ASD” chant.

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