Last week, around 50 parents and students of Sheffield Elementary filed out of their school, lined up on the sidewalk, and chanted this simple demand for the news cameras: "Leave us alone."
Sheffield Elementary is one of five Shelby County Schools (SCS) slated for state takeover by the Achievement School District (ASD) — the state-run school district that manages schools in the bottom five percent of performance. Once a school is taken over by the ASD, it's converted into a charter school.
The parents' opposition to the proposed ASD plans for Sheffield stems from the simple argument that Sheffield is making great strides toward academic success on its own, and they say a disruption of the progress would only prove detrimental to students.
"Why do people want Sheffield right now?" asked Barbara Riddle, whose two grandchildren attend the school. "Why now after the last few years of building a foundation with our new principal?"
Under Sheffield's principal, Patricia Griggs-Merriweather, the school has made academic gains as measured by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. A TVAAS score of four or five would warrant the school's removal from the ASD's priority list. Sheffield's gains in reading and math scores have earned them a score of three.
State Representative Raumesh Akbari sponsored the TVAAS law that currently renders Sheffield eligible for ASD takeover but joined the parents and students in asking for their progress to be left uninterrupted.
"The biggest fear is that this school will be taken out of the community's control," Akbari said. "If a school is already doing the right thing, then I want to support those efforts. I don't want those students to go through the trauma of a takeover where the principal is gone, all of the teachers have been fired, and a whole new mentality comes in."
SCS board member Miska Clay Bibbs, also in the crowd, echoed Akbari's concerns about the sudden disruption of a working formula.
"For me as a school board member, it's about choice. What does true choice look like?" Bibbs asked. "If a school is already making academic gains and growing in the way that it's growing, how can they be matched with someone who can't compare to that same growth? That's not choice."
Aspire Public Schools is the charter network that has applied to take over Sheffield. No representatives from Aspire were on hand during the protest, but parents did confirm that they had heard from representatives from the network. Riddle remains unconvinced that Aspire is the best solution for the school.
"What they did was very unimpressive," Riddle said. "They said, 'Well, if we take over your school, your child receives a free laptop, iPad, or desktop.' Well, I'm not impressed with that, and my children are not for sale. It made me wonder if the children's best interests are at heart or if there's a hidden agenda."
In a statement released last Thursday, the ASD said parental input was welcome and encouraged via a neighborhood advisory council charged with the task of reviewing Aspire's application.
"The criteria for ASD are clear, and since the recent passing of the TVAAS law championed by Rep. Akbari, it is now clearer than ever," said the statement.