That's what Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District, said at Denver Elementary School in Frayser Tuesday night. It was, and will be, a tough sell. Denver is one of eight Memphis schools that will join the ASD next year and be matched up with a charter-school operator.
The teachers and parents in the audience were wary. Who wouldn't be? Everything is harder at poor schools. There are security patrols instead of or in addition to booster clubs. Parents can't get child care to make it to meetings. Extra money for classroom expenses is hard to scrape up when residents struggle to make ends meet at home. The woman who drove me to the meeting works at an ASD school where the school bus didn't make a stop the other day because there was too much potential for violence. Better luck tomorrow, kids.
Deandre Brown, founder of Lifeline to Success and Frayser's "blight patrol", introduced Barbic and brought along 25 or so green-shirted members of the blight patrol.
"We won't have that tonight," Brown said.
Given the magnitude of the change being proposed, the questions were more like statements or multiple questions, and most of them came from teachers at Denver or Frayser High School. At the end of the 90-minute meeting, Brown held a handful of cards with written questions that he and Barbic promised would be addressed later.
The ASD both operates schools (including six in Frayser this year) and authorizes others to run them. Frayser High School, for example, will be MLK Prep next year, under the leadership of principal Bobby White, a Frayser native and community leader. On other ASD schools, Barbic and his staff are trying to thread the needle by announcing them two weeks ago but withholding details about who will run them and work at them until December, following more meetings like the ones this week at Denver and Carver.
"The headline is that there was not a lot of progress here last year," Barbic said. "We're not wagging a finger trying to make people feel bad."
Five Frayser teachers who got to the microphone begged to differ. They said that Denver absorbed hundreds of new students from a neighboring school and made gains anyway, and that Frayser High School was a "takeover" without adequate notice. Barbic nodded sympathetically to some comments and took the microphone to clarify that the process began three years ago.
"At some point we have got to see bigger gains," he said.
The pressure on the ASD and charter operators is tremendous. Moving schools from the bottom five percent in the state to the top 25 percent without cheating or culling low-scoring students is unprecedented. Reading scores have been especially problematic for the ASD. Teachers like the ones who spoke at Denver Elementary are skeptical that outsiders can do a better job than dedicated veterans.
The teaching insurgents are looking at some long days. After dropping me off at home last night, my friend — a member of the first Teach For America corps in Memphis — declined a dinner invitation. She had to go back to work.