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Achieve! Town Hall probes school choice, collaboration


The Achieve! Town Hall was a first step in an effort to bridge the gap between those facing decisions about school choice and the information they need to make good decisions. It included a panel discussion that probed issues related to school choice. (Photo: Shirley Jackson)

by Karanja A. Ajanaku

Some see school choice as a new arrival. Others see it as old as education itself. The extremes suggest the need for dialogue and that’s what the Achieve! Town Hall delivered at The Magnet in the Soulsville community last Saturday, March 30.

 Hosted by The New Tri-State Defender, in partnership with New America Media, the forum featured a panel of school leaders, educators and advocates. They were guided through a discussion moderated by TSD President/Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II.

The panelists were: Kevin Woods, commissioner, Shelby County Board of Education; David Hill, director of Academic Operations, Diocese of Memphis Catholic Schools; Ginger Spickler, communications coordinator, Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST); James Alexander, director, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences Charter School; and Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

 Choice is here, said Smith, setting up the framework for the discussion.

“We (The New Tri-State Defender) want to make sure that all parents are well informed and ready to take full advantage of opportunities that exist to increase their child’s potential.”

It was the MEA’s Williams who noted thatchoice is as old as education. “Not all schools are great schools, he said. “Public schools have the responsibility to make all schools great.”

 Asked how might we develop better resources and tools for parents, Spickler noted the Achieve! School Choice Guide, which debuted at the town hall session. The resource publication was produced by the TSD through the partnership with New America Media and was funded, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

 “The Guide is something Memphis has needed…use this as a first-step tool,” said Spickler, adding that an unused tool is not helpful. “You have to take it and show people how to use.”

The ACHIEVE! School Choice Guide displays achievement data available for each school included.  Publishers hope the data on proficiency and graduation rates will help parents make more informed choices, instead of making a selection without knowledge of overall student performance.

 Hill said it was important to recognize that school choice is one of the tools and “is not the answer.” Even when the goal of “all great schools” is met, there will still be the need for choice “because kids are different,” he said.

 Woods spoke of the need to provide different choices to improve education across the district. He talked about the necessity of making public schools better and issued a caution against demonizing teachers.

 Parents, said Alexander, want good schools, a commonality he noticed at a recent charter school fair. It’s important that we all work as community toward that goal, he said.

 All parents across the spectrum love their children and want what’s best for them,” said Hill, adding that, “It’s really important to use whatever vehicles that are possible to expand access to information.”

 As for school performance, Williams stressed that performance relies heavily on levels of engagement.

 “High performing schools have high quality instruction and engaged students, and parents,” he said. “Parents don’t have to be degree holders to seek and want a quality education for their children.”

 The wide-ranging discussion was brought back to center near its conclusion by a parent who, noting that “our kids can’t wait,” said, “This is really all about children.”

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