ASD copycats

More states look to Tennessee’s Achievement School District as a school turnaround model

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

When Chris Barbic took the helm of Tennessee’s new Achievement School District in 2011, there was little guidance for how a state-run turnaround school district might look.

“Nothing existed,” Barbic said recently during a Fordham Institute panel on turnaround districts. “I walked into an office with a sheet of paper with some legislation, and the charge was, go start a school district.”

That’s beginning to change as more lawmakers across the nation look to Barbic’s Achievement School District as a model to improve struggling schools on a larger scale — even as the impact of Tennessee’s pioneering district remains murky.

As the ASD completes its third year of operation, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas all appear poised to launch state-run turnaround school districts, with Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada even seeking to copy Tennessee’s “ASD” moniker.

Before Tennessee established the ASD in its omnibus 2010 First to the Top Act, only Louisiana had tried its hand at a turnaround school district, in which the state had authority to take control of low-performing public schools and convert them into charter schools.

But Louisiana’s situation was different than Tennessee’s. Its turnaround district, called the Recovery School District (RSD), was established in 2004, and quickly became the dominant school system in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when most of New Orleans’ educational infrastructure was literally washed away. Today, it operates about 60 schools — all charters — while the Orleans Parish School District operates 20.

Tennessee’s ASD arose out of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, which incentivized states to come up with bold proposals to improve their worst schools. The ASD was the centerpiece of Tennessee’s resulting First to the Top Act, which also overhauled teacher evaluations and instituted Common Core. For its efforts, Tennessee joined Delaware as the nation’s first recipients of the Race to the Top grant, providing Tennessee an additional $500 million in education spending over four years.

As the ASD was being created, Michigan was laying the groundwork for its own state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority. The ASD and Michigan’s district both began operation in 2012, but Tennessee’s district has twice as many schools — 29 in the 2015-16 school year, mostly in Memphis —and has had a smoother start than its Michigan counterpart.

The ASD also is the only district of its type with the concrete goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.

The buzz has attracted national attention and copycat initiatives from a growing list of states. Pennsylvania’s Senate passed a bill last week to approve an ASD there, and the measure now awaits a House vote. Nevada’s legislature approved an ASD in May. Georgia voters will decide next year on a constitutional amendment to create an “Opportunity School District.”

In at least five other states — Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — lawmakers or activists have begun campaigns to launch similar programs.

Meanwhile, Virginia attempted to model its own turnaround district after the ASD, but a court struck down the law that would have permitted creation of the “Opportunity Education Institute.” The court ruled that the plan violated the state’s constitution because the district was created by the legislature, and not by the state board of education, and because it unseated local district control.

For his part, Barbic is unsure if there are enough high-quality charter operators to go around, should the ASD copycats get off the ground.

“The bottom line is that there are not a lot of great charter operators to begin with, and there are even fewer who understand how to do turnaround,” he said during Fordham’s panel, which also included leaders from Louisiana and Michigan.

“If we don’t solve the charter supply problem, we can have as many of these (turnaround districts) on the books as we want, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually be executed and done well,” said Barbic, who was recruited to Tennessee from Houston, where he helped found the Yes Prep charter network.

Barbic is no stranger to the challenges. Many of the ASD’s Memphis schools lag behind their counterparts in Shelby County Schools’ own school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone. And last year, four charter networks — including Yes Prep — backed out of plans to expand with the ASD. In addition to often mediocre improvement on end-of-year tests, the ASD has frequently been accused of clumsy engagement with the communities in which it opens schools.

Barbic acknowledges that the ASD has made mistakes, but is quick to point out changing attitudes and priorities among local education leaders as a result of the looming threat of ASD intervention in lackluster districts. He thinks the ASD has helped propel district-led turnaround efforts such as Memphis’ I-Zone.

Community engagement has often fallen by the wayside, he said, because of the district’s speedy timeline.

“Some of that lays at our feet, and some of that is the speed in which we’ve had to move with this,” Barbic said before conceding that “there has to be more parent demand for what we’re trying to do” if the district is to be ultimately successful.

Education leaders in Tennessee have watched the ASD’s evolution with both fascination and fear.

Will Pinkston, a school board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, coined the term “Achievement School District” during the drafting of the First to the Top Act when he worked for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. He has since become an ASD critic, saying the initiative was never intended to rely so heavily on charter operators, or grow so quickly.

“If other states want to commit to creating pro-public education turnaround agencies that are designed to help students and teachers in traditional schools, I think it’s great for them to co-opt the name,” Pinkston said. “If they’re instead looking to turn their backs on traditional public education, as the ASD is doing, then I would encourage them to look at different and more intellectually honest monikers.”

“Regardless,” he joked, “it’s abundantly clear that we should have trademarked the brand with the royalties going to support public schools.”

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.