ASD

Achievement School District, SCS make plans for failing schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District

Officials with the state-run Achievement School District said they plan to open up to two brand-new schools and take over as many as nine additional historically low-performing schools next year. All but one of the new schools next year are slated to be in Memphis.

The ASD, a state effort to improve schools by dramatically overhauling their staff, programs, and governance, has grown quickly since it was created in 2011: It ran six schools in 2012-13, 17 schools in 2013-14, and is operating 22 schools, one in Nashville and 21 in Memphis, this year. Its enrollment has grown from 2,000 students in Memphis in its first year to approximately 6,500 students in the city this year.

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said that the district met with ASD officials Thursday to discuss the expansion.

“We’ll have meaningful input into which schools they take and don’t take,” he said.

Hopson said the district would consider factors like feeder patterns—which elementary schools send students to which middle and high schools—and whether schools had new leaders or plans for improvement in place when making suggestions.

The schools taken over by the ASD in 2015-16 will be the first drawn from the newest state priority list, which uses three years of test scores and graduation rates to determine which low-performing schools should receive interventions.

All of the new ASD schools will be turned into charter schools, which hire their own staff and set their own schedules, curricula, and budget. (The ASD also directly runs five schools.) Schools’ attendance zones remain the same, but any student zoned to a bottom 5 percent school can enroll. New ASD charter schools can enroll any student zoned to a bottom 5 percent school.

Shelby County Schools will use the same priority list to determine which schools will join its Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools that remain in the district but are given new staff, resources, and longer school days. The district plans to add four schools next year and is also considering using charter schools to run those schools.

Hopson and ASD superintendent Chris Barbic have publicly emphasized what they refer to as “co-opetition” between the two districts.

Hopson said that “I wish we could ‘I-Zone’ more of our schools. But for schools we can’t get that intense treatment to, I feel better knowing that they’re getting something.”

A draft list of schools to be taken over by the ASD will likely be made public by early October. The final decision about which charter school will be “matched” with which priority list school will likely be determined by December, after a series of community meetings.

“We’re in the early stages,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s New Schools Director. “We’re still analyzing data to figure out which schools will be on the final list.”

Roen said the October list will likely change over time, as the district will go through a process of meetings with communities and schools to determine which school is matched with which operator.

That process has been bumpy in previous years, as some schools’ staff and communities have protested the ASD’s plans to overhaul their schools. At South Side Middle and Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, for instance, school leaders presented ASD leaders with data showing that their schools were on an upward track already.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, said that as the district plans for a new set of meetings, “smoothness does not equal greatness…it’s right for people to be skeptical, given the track record of systems in Memphis and elsewhere. We want hard conversations to happen. If they’re not happening, we’re probably not talking about the right issues.”

The ASD has created a volunteer board known as the Achievement Advisory Council, or AAC, to make recommendations about which schools should be run by which charter school operator. Ian Buchanan, the director of community partnerships for the ASD, said that it had gotten more than 30 applications for the board this year. “We want to get more parents whose kids are in school on the AAC this year,” he said.

ASD leaders make the final decision about which schools are taken over. Last year, the ASD followed four of the AAC’s six recommendations for the Memphis schools.

Capstone Education Group, Freedom Prep, Green Dot Public Schools, KIPP Memphis, The Libertas School, Scholar Academies, and YES Prep are all planning to either take over or start new schools in Memphis. LEAD Public Schools would open another middle school in Nashville.

59 schools in Memphis are on the current priority list. Nine of those are already in the ASD.

Barbic told the media when state test scores were released in August that the district would use school performance to determine which schools would expand. The ASD has set the goal of improving schools’ scores so that they are in the top 25 percent in the state, which Barbic has said was intended to ensure that the improvements are lasting and significant.

Two school operators that had initially been slated to open new ASD schools in 2015-16, Aspire Public Schools and Artesian Community Schools, no longer plan to open schools in the ASD next year.

Aspire’s schools in the ASD, Hanley 1 and Hanley 2, both saw drops in test scores last year, their first year of operation. The ASD decided that the school would not expand, based on a new policy that requires school operators to be on target to reach academic goals in at least half of their schools before they add schools, according to Smalley.

“After the first year of school for Aspire, there was a decision to not replicate and not expand next year, and to focus internally on making sure the schools they have have a phenomenal year,” Roen said.

Allison Leslie, the director of Aspire in Memphis, said the network plans to open a new charter school as part of Shelby County Schools in 2015-16.

Artesian Community Schools is a local organization that has not yet opened a school because they haven’t found a suitable principal yet, said Ashley Smith, the network’s executive director. She said the network plans to open a school in 2016-17.

Rocketship and KIPP Nashville are also authorized to open schools in the ASD but are not yet set to open any schools.

The ASD, which is in its third year running schools, was created by the state’s First to the Top Act and funded by the state’s federal Race to the Top grant.

Below, find the draft list, provided by the ASD. Phase-in schools take over a grade at a time, while “full-school transformations” take over entire existing schools. The ASD also may open two brand-new schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which organization decided that Aspire Public Schools would not open a new school in the ASD next year. The decision was made by the ASD based on a new policy.

 

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.