deeper dive

Closer look at Achievement School District’s original schools shows wide range in trajectories

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
A student walks through Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five schools affected by ASD cutbacks.

When state test scores came out earlier this week, leaders of the Achievement School District breathed a sigh of relief: After two bumpy years in which test scores fell or stayed flat, the state-run turnaround district’s original schools posted significant gains, especially in math.

State and ASD officials said the third year of scores showed that overhauling persistently low-performing schools without displacing their students, the district’s unusual model, takes time to pay off.

But a closer analysis of test scores at the six Memphis schools that joined the district in 2012, its first year, suggests that that story is not true across the board. In fact, only three of the schools saw the proportion of students scoring “proficient” or higher in math rise since last year, and almost all saw their reading scores fall during that time.

The analysis shows that progress at the schools at the heart of the state’s effort to catapult the state’s worst schools into the top tier is uneven at best. It also underscores the fact that with attention on a tiny number of schools, outsized gains at just a few can color the picture for all.

And it provides a clear illustration of one quirk of Tennessee’s focus on student growth over performance: The schools racked up points for having fewer students score “basic,” the state’s lowest level, even as the proportion of students whose scores put them at grade level did not rise at most of them. That trend suggests that students’ skills are moving in the right direction but are still far from achieving the ASD’s lofty ambitions.

“If our students are ever going to catch up, and we’re going to close the achievement gap, then we’ve got to be growing faster than the state average,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said Wednesday. “There’s certainly still lots of work for us to do.”

Six schools — five in Memphis and one in Nashville — joined the ASD in 2012, its first year operating schools. Three of them were assigned to charter operators, while the district opted to run three others directly. All got new names, teachers and programs in an effort to break out of long histories of low performance.

Of those schools, the three that the district has run directly — all in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood — had higher math scores this year than when the ASD took over, although only two of the schools have outpaced the state’s overall trend during that time.

“We have some really incredible gains this year in Frayser, and that’s partially what led to the 5 overall,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s director of new schools, referring to the six schools’ combined rating from the state, the highest possible.

But all three schools that the district assigned to charter operators, privately managed but publicly funded nonprofits, had fewer students score proficient or advanced in math this year than last year, even as two had more students at those levels than in 2013.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14,***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from Algebra 1 exams.

Reading scores declined at all six of the ASD’s original schools, although at least three schools that have been in the district for less time saw reading gains.

At Brick Church College Prep, scores fell sharply in all subjects, suggesting that something changed dramatically at the school in its third year or that high scores in the second year did not accurately reflect students’ skills at the time — or both.

*School joined the ASD in 2012-13, **School joined the ASD in 2013-14, ***School joined the ASD in 2014-15
State data is not available for schools showing 0 percent proficient or advanced. High school scores are from English 1 exams.

A policy change that State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen floated as an explanation for statewide score stumbles — a new rule requiring students with disabilities to take the same tests as other students, rather than easier versions — would have hit Brick Church especially hard. Almost a third of the school’s students have disabilities, about double the district and state average.

But Chris Reynolds, the CEO of LEAD, the charter organization that runs Brick Church, said a bigger issue was that the school had departed from the network’s prescribed curriculum. “The impact on changes in testing for special education students is very real in schools like Brick Church, but we prefer instead to focus on an effective curriculum implementation that serves all students,” he said, noting that the network had removed the school’s leader at the end of the year.

Brick Church’s experience and the uneven progress among the ASD schools is significant, according to Will Pinkston, who gave the district its name when he helped write the legislation that created it, and who now sits on Nashville’s school board. It’s not the district’s model that’s successful, he says, but the principals and teachers at the three schools with the dramatic gains.

“The structure is much less important than the personnel and the quality and the leadership in the building,” Pinkston said.

To some degree, scores at the ASD’s schools might not even be the best measure of its impact. State officials have repeatedly emphasized that the ASD has placed pressure on districts to improve schools or risk losing them.

“I certainly believe the ASD has been a positive lever for change across our state,” McQueen said Wednesday.

Indeed, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told Chalkbeat that he thought competition had pushed local principals to make important changes on their own.

“The ASD has created this sense of urgency that may not of been there,” Hopson said. “Principals, if they never knew before, you now see them with an extra pep in their step.  You see communities rallying around schools.”

But some local school leaders say they would have made those changes with or without the specter of ASD takeover. And the state’s efforts to improve its lowest-performing schools extended beyond the ASD’s borders, with Shelby County receiving millions of dollars in federal funds for its own schools as well. In those schools, known together as the district’s Innovation Zone, test score trends are also mixed. But more of them posted year-over-year gains, including several that bucked the state trend and saw reading scores climb.

Taken together, the scores suggest exactly what districts across the country have found and Barbic has taken to saying lately: that turning around schools with low test scores and many high-needs students is extremely difficult.

Expecting anything other than small gains each year — and potentially some setbacks — might have been unrealistic, according to Joshua Glazer, a researcher at The George Washington University studying the district.

“You want to see incremental progress,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic that you’re going to see the pace of gains to put a school in the top quartile.”

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.