At critical moment, state-run Achievement School District posts big gains at its original schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Students, teachers, and families from six of the Achievement School Districts' schools attended a rally at Whitney Achievement Elementary Wednesday to celebrate gains on the TCAP.

After a bumpy first two years, a flagship effort to turn around some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools is showing the test score gains it was created to accomplish.

Math and science scores rose faster this year at schools in the Achievement School District than they did on average across the state, while their reading scores kept pace with the state. Schools that have been under the ASD’s control for the longest saw the largest gains.

You can see school-level and district scores here, and our list of things to consider while doing your own test score analysis here.

The improvements came after two years in which stagnant or even falling test scores raised questions about whether the ASD could achieve its goal of catapulting schools from the bottom 5 percent statewide to the top quarter.

The district’s strategy is to overhaul the low-performing schools, usually by assigning them to charter operators, without changing their student bodies.

Since the ASD launched three years ago, it has been touted by policymakers in Tennessee and across the country as a promising approach for states looking to improve their lowest-performing schools — and criticized by some local educators and communities for not showing results quickly enough.

ASD officials and state officials said Wednesday that the new scores suggest that the district’s approach takes time to bear fruit.

“We needed time to see the progress, and now we have, and it’s like a shot in the arm,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said at a rally in Frayser to celebrate the test score gains .

“When you look at the schools that have been part of the ASD the longest…we’re seeing the growth that was anticipated,” state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen added.

Indeed, gains were most dramatic in the first schools absorbed by the ASD three years ago. Schools under their first year of ASD control saw slower gains, or even slid backwards, just as the schools posting large gains this year did two years ago.

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PHOTO: Achievement School District
The Achievement School District posted larger gains in math and science than the state as a whole. Graphic provided by the ASD.

Barbic said there are good reasons for schools not to show dramatic test score gains in the first year of a turnaround effort.

“What we’re learning is step one is establishing a strong and positive culture,” he said. “Once you establish culture, then you can leverage that, and turn it into academic results for kids.”

Still, it’s not clear if the schools are improving fast enough to be among the top-performing in Tennessee in two years. More than half of elementary and middle schools across the state have math proficiency levels above 50 percent this year, while in the ASD, only Whitney Achievement Elementary School had a proficiency level that high.

And next year the state will get a new test, TNReady, which McQueen has said likely will cause scores to fall across the state.

Barbic said he is optimistic that at least some of the schools are on track to achieve the district’s lofty ambitions.

“None of us are able to predict the future but … our belief is that as long as we can sustain that growth, then we will certainly have schools in the top quartile in five years time,” he said.

This year was an especially important year for Westside Achievement School, one of the ASD’s direct-run schools. If schools in the ASD don’t make gains for two consecutive years, the management and teachers are booted. Out of 26 ASD schools last year, only six were in their third year.  Of those, only Westside was in danger of another overhaul. Double-digit gains in math and science have averted that possibility.

Tim Ware, the director of the district’s direct-run schools, said at the rally that he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the improvements.

“It’s … a hundred specific things working in concert with each other,” he said. “A close partnerships with the community, an in-depth understanding of where students are academically, and an understanding of how to move them where they need to be.”

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.