News Article Details

AG opinions put Memphis ASD students in limbo

Commercial Appeal - 4/6/2017

April 06--MEMPHIS -- Angel Dunlap's three children love Aspire Coleman school in Raleigh for its underwater robotics program, teachers who find alternatives to suspending students and a principal who doles out high-fives to start each day.

But her eldest, 13-year-old Erica Dunlap, is one of 36 seventh-graders who don't know if they will be able to stay at their school for eighth grade.

Coleman, a charter school currently serving kindergarten through seventh grade under the state-run Achievement School District, intended to add the eighth grade to its school next year. But three opinions from the Tennessee Attorney General say the state created the ASD to take over struggling schools, and does not have the authority to add grades that were not offered previously.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said the district will comply with the opinion, which will impact three ASD schools, all in Memphis. In addition to Coleman, Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas serves kindergarten through sixth grade and planned to add seventh and eighth grades next year. The school currently has 37 sixth-graders. Before becoming part of the ASD, the school stopped at fifth grade.

Libertas School, formerly Brookmeade Elementary, is phasing in a full elementary school, which it can continue to do, but may not be able to add a sixth-grade class as planned by the 2020-21 school year.

Two state representatives, Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, and Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, requested opinions on whether ASD schools, under state law, have the authority to expand their grade offerings. Neither responded to requests for comment Tuesday, but Parkinson has long called for abolishment of the ASD.

The opinions, the last of which is dated mid-March, put an immediate stop to plans at Coleman and Florida-Kansas to add the grades, and put each school's children in the middle of a political fight over the role of the ASD in Tennessee.

"I do think that it was Representative Parkinson's intent to limit the reach of the ASD," Anderson said. "I wouldn't say that's the case of Representative Brooks at all. I think he truly wanted clarification, given some questions that were coming to him."

Each school's last hope may rest with Shelby County Schools. Coleman and Florida-Kansas each sent letters to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson asking for a waiver to be able to expand grades.

"We're kind of in a holding pattern until SCS makes a decision about whether we can operate eighth grade there next year," Aspire Memphis Executive Director Allison Leslie said.

The Tennessee Department of Education said in a statement that SCS has a role in these cases because the local district "has the authority and obligation to ensure all students in their jurisdiction have an educational option."

SCS said in a statement the district received requests to add grades from both Coleman and Florida-Kansas and that the district's legal counsel would "advise the Board of Education of its legal rights options and responsibilities."

The issue could create the latest conflict between the districts, which compete for students. Anderson said she's "not confident" but remains "hopeful" that SCS will allow the schools to add the grades as planned.

"There's really only path to best meet the continuing education needs of students in their respective middle schools," she said. "And I would hope that Shelby County would partner with our operators to ensure that families don't experience a disruption."

Coleman Principal Owen Ricciardi said board member Stephanie Love visited the school last week, and he was optimistic SCS would grant their request.

"At the end of the day, what's best for kids is what's on everybody's mind," Ricciardi said.

Coleman is hosting a meeting for parents Thursday night. Florida-Kansas held a meeting Wednesday, ASD Chief of External Affairs Bobby White said.

Dunlap, the Coleman parent of three, said having to transfer her children out of the school for their last year of middle school would be "devastating" for her family.

"My goal is to just make sure that my kids have the best opportunity possible, and Coleman gives them the best opportunity possible," she said. "So we're trying to fight as much as we can to make sure they can stay at Coleman as long as they can."

Reach Jennifer Pignolet at jennifer.pignolet@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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(c)2017 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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