A Memphis-based charter organization has hired a longtime educator to lead academic strategy as the group seeks to revive schools in two of the city’s low-performing neighborhoods — Frayser and North Memphis.
Brett Lawson joins Frayser Community Schools after 23 years working in Memphis public schools. He was most recently the Instructional Leadership Director for Shelby County Schools, where he supervised principals in the district.
Lawson’s dual roles as Chief of Strategy and Head of Schools are new ones for the Frayser charter organization, which runs schools under the state-run Achievement School District. The state created the district in 2013 with the goal of turning around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by replacing district-run schools with charter organizations.
Read more about the history of the Achievement School District here.
The Frayser organization was one of the first Memphis-based charter organizations to partner with the state and has grown to three schools, from one, in five years. Lawson’s hire signals a concerted effort to double-down on academics.
“We’re a very different organization than we were five years ago,” said Bobby White, CEO of Frayser Community Schools. “The type of talent needed on our team evolved. I hired Brett to lead with me at the highest level. I view us as co-leaders of the organization.”
Lawson said he came aboard to help Frayser Community Schools bolster its academic strategies, especially in regard to fostering collaboration among the three schools and analyzing data.
“I was known for being one of the ‘data guys’ in my previous school work,” Lawson said. “I’ll be working to support principals in this new role, but I’ll also be looking at all of our initiatives and asking: Are they working? Do we have data to back them up?”
Frayser Community Schools was founded in 2014 by White, a former Memphis principal. Its first school was Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Middle School, when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the state-run district.
And as of the 2018–2019 school year, Westside Achievement Middle School — previously part of the Achievement School District — will be run by White’s organization.
The move to place Westside under control of Frayser Community Schools signals the state’s confidence that White, and now Lawson, can turn it around. Enrollment at Westside has fallen by half since 2012, and the school’s academics have also struggled.
White has grown the Frayser network in part because of his ability to increase enrollment. MLK Prep, the charter network’s high school, has grown to 625 students last year, from 550 students in 2014. But its academics have been slower to improve. Last school year, 65 percent of its students scored below grade level in English and 78 percent scored below grade level in math, according to state data.
White said his priority for the past five years has been reconnecting his schools to their neighborhoods and establishing strong school cultures. His organization has prioritized partnerships with other neighborhood organizations and extra-curricular activities, such as band and sports, to foster community buy-in. Now, White said he is looking to Lawson to work with principals on strong academic plans.
Lawson said he’s up for the task. Before entering into district leadership, Lawson was a principal at multiple Memphis schools, including Overton High School, a traditional district school known for its creative and fine arts programs.
Under Lawson’s leadership, Overton High went from a rating of Level 1 on the state’s growth scale, the lowest score, to a Level 5, the highest rating. The state scores are meant to measure how effectively teachers are furthering students’ academics.
“As a principal, my goal was to help my teachers understand how their relationships with students impact the outcomes of a classroom,” Lawson said. “Helping a teacher understand how those relationships matter by digging into the data with them is compelling for an educator. I now get to do that on a larger scale here.”
Early in his career, Lawson was a music teacher at a Memphis elementary school. His love for music and the arts is one of the things that sold him on Frayser Community Schools, which has an award-winning band.
“I feel like this role is a culmination of all that I have done,” he said.