One Whitehaven community. Two high schools. A few turnaround options.

Whitehaven is rich of history, culture, great food — and school turnaround reform.

There’s Whitehaven High. The high performing school is known and respected for its sports program, lively band and majorettes, and the millions of dollars in scholarships awarded to college-bound seniors.

Then, there’s Hillcrest High. The school was taken over by the state in 2016 after falling in the bottom five percent of student achievement. It is now managed by Green Dot, a charter operator under the Achievement School District (ASD).

After schools including A. Maceo Walker and Robert R. Church elementary schools landed on the state priority list, which prompted discussions of takeover by the state’s ASD, a local faction pushed back against the takeover by creating the Empowerment Zone. Whitehaven High alumni and Principal Vincent Hunter worked alongside Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and area parents and community members to create a new type of locally-run turnaround district. 

A less expensive model than the Innovation Zone (iZone), the goal of the Empowerment Zone is to corral the low-performing neighborhood schools into a pipeline by feeding elementary and middle schools to Whitehaven High. Leaders leverage the high school's success patterns and strategies and model them in other Whitehaven schools.

The first model of its kind in Memphis, more schools are added each year to the district.

The pilot began between Whitehaven High, Havenview Middle School and A. Maceo Walker Middle School for the 2016 to 2017 school year. Holmes Road Elementary was added in the 2017 to 2018 school year.

A parent completes her Whitehaven Empowerment Zone Parent, Teacher and Student Organization application on April 24th at Holmes Road Elementary, which joined the Empowerment Zone the 2017 to 2018 school year. (Kirstin Cheers)

“I’m all about the Haven,” said Candice Lauderdale who has a son graduating from Whitehaven High in 2018. She is also a teacher at Havenview Middle in Whitehaven.

Before moving to Whitehaven, Lauderdale’s son attended elementary and middle school in Cordova. She says she can distinguish the difference in community-driven effort between the two school districts and believes her son is better prepared for college since attending Whitehaven High in the 9th grade.

“It’s an extreme difference. The community here cares about our schools to the point where we won’t allow our students to fail. I see it in my classroom every day. The vertical alignment and the sharing of resources and mandatory tutoring ... it’s working.”

Unlike the iZone, the Empowerment Zone does not extend the learning day by an hour. Instead, it maximizes learning and instructional time by having mandatory after-school tutoring for students at risk of failing classes or showing a pattern of not mastering materials.

In 2017, the state announced A. Maceo Walker Middle had transitioned from the priority list to “priority improving.”

“Our school moved from the bottom 5 percent all the way to a 9.9,” says Dr. Terrence Brittenum, principal of A. Maceo Walker Middle.

Other components include objective driven lessons that supplement state testing, “task-on-the-table coursework” meaning assessing if the students’ work is of quality and applicable, and “measurable closure,” which is measuring if students are mastering the content and sharing feedback with teachers.

The defining component of the Empowerment Zone is the vertical alignment among elementary, middle and high school instructors. Teachers and administrators share strategies, curriculums and content that’s beneficial and has been proven effective in preparing students for high school coursework and state testing.

“What they’re teaching at the middle school is preparing them for [Whitehaven High] school,” said Chantel Davis, vice president of the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone Parent, Teacher and Student Organization.

But what if a child who traveled elementary and middle school breaks with the feeder pattern and attends Hillcrest High? According to Teddick Estes, assistant principal, the work he’s been doing since joining the team in 2016 has included changing the perception of Hillcrest High. A Central High alum, he’s heard the worst about Hillcrest while growing up in Memphis.

“Because we’re right across the street from Peppertree Apartments, it doesn’t help. I’ve heard this is a bad school. People second guess and probably don’t guess to send their kids here. We’re changing that.”

Green Dot hired Principal Meredith Davis was hired in 2016 to lead the school’s turnaround. Upon arriving, Estes says she quickly attracted the respect of students, parents and staff. So much so, she built relationships with students who were considered “high-risk,” including those involved in gangs.

Assistant Principal Estes sits in his office at Hillcrest High and takes a break to watch "Raised In the System," an HBO documentary on children and families affected by incarceration. Estes says the documentary is a perfect depiction of what some of his students have endured. (Kirstin Cheers)

“We make it clear that students can come to us if they have any issues with another student," she said. "We’ve addressed potential gang issues. The program may be new, but students do an amazing job of utilizing our methods and respecting the campus. If you treat them like animals, they’ll act like it. We don’t do that here.”

One thing Estes is proud of is the establishment of restorative justice methods to curb potential disturbances. Estes and his staff are aware that gang affiliation is present in the school, but says students “leave that at home.” When Principal Davis arrived to Hillcrest, she made an effort to sit down with students perceived to be involved in gangs and set the record straight. So far, it’s worked.

Campus security officers monitor the hallway during the day and report to the Dean of Students, who Estes says is considered a father figure to many students. According to Estes, there has not been a gang fight at the school this year.

Related: "Opinion: Hillcrest High School prepares students for success"

While also combating low test scores and reputation, Estes says they’re also focused on changing the myths about parental engagement and people living in poverty.

“I don’t want to exaggerate here, but we have some amazing students. 90 percent are receiving free or reduced lunch, a good amount work part-time after school, our parents are working extremely hard managing multiple jobs, and still our students find the strength to come to school and get things done.”

As they prepare to graduate over 130 seniors, Estes and Davis have created a school atmosphere that even the state recognizes. 

During the school’s  AdvancED Continuous Improvement System accreditation review  where the state education department sends administrators to observe and measure the school in the areas of leadership capacity, learning capacity, and resource capacity, judges noted Hillcrest was “meeting and exceeding all expectations.”

Some Empowerment Zone supporters aren’t as enthusiastic about Hillcrest, however. Brittenum believes if an Empowerment Zone student had to attend Hillcrest for whatever reason, their test scores and grades would suffer.

"This zone was created by our community, for our community. [ASD] is more corporate," Chantel Davis added.

The Empowerment Zone and Hillcrest may differ in how they address disciplinary issues. Davis asserts Whitehaven schools are zero-tolerance. “We don’t do gang affiliations and violence. If calling the parents doesn’t work, the district best decides how to handle that student.”

Jocquell Rodgers, director of community engagement and public relations for the Achievement School District, said the suspension rate for Hillcrest has dropped from 60 percent to 17 percent since joining the ASD.

“Keeping children in school is more beneficial than sending them home. We can have a conversation with them here.”

While most Hillcrest parents work multiple jobs, Estes says they are engaged when they can. At a recent dinner hosted by Hillcrest, over 50 parents attended. The purpose was to eat and help parents and students fill out their FAFSA.

“I think Hillcrest is a best-kept secret in Whitehaven,” said Rodgers.

“We have partnerships with organizations across the city, eagerly investing in our kids. Our students are exposed and go on college tours like many other schools. Our rep precedes us but we’re changing all of that," Rodgers added. "We’re doing the work, and we’re doing well.”

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Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Memphistravel.com. Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.