Warning List

Here’s where Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools stand a year before the state’s next priority list

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Aspire's Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.

The State Department of Education released an informational list this spring for school districts to better understand where their lowest-performing schools stand in terms of academic performance. The so-called “cusp list” identifies schools in the state’s bottom 10 percent — one year before the state releases its official priority list of schools in the bottom 5 percent.

Here’s what you need to know before reading this year’s list, which is included at the bottom of this page.

It’s not the official priority list. That list, issued every three years, is scheduled to be released next summer. The priority list will be used by the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, to determine which eligible schools to consider for state intervention and potential charter conversions in 2018-19. But
under a 2015 state law, the year before the priority list is released, the state must notify schools that are in the bottom 10 percent in order to provide schools and districts and their communities with a warning that they soon could be eligible for state intervention. “This list is not intended to prematurely identify priority schools,” said department spokeswoman Ashley Ball. “The intent of the law is to give schools information ahead of time, so that they have time to make meaningful improvements.”

But it’s unclear how much will change before the official list comes out. Because of flexibilities being shown by the state due to the troubled rollout of TNReady, state officials plan to release two priority lists next year: one with and one without TNReady scores from this year. The first list will be based on a three-year success rate, with data from 2016-17, 2015-16 and 2014-15. The second will exclude TNReady scores and use a two-year success rate with data from 2014-15 and 2016-17. A school would have to appear on both lists in order to land on the priority list. That way, problems that caused schools to scramble while administering TNReady in its first year will not hurt their standing. So schools might make it out of the bottom 5 percent if they do well on TNReady — but most everyone expects this year’s TNReady scores to be lower than previous years as districts adjust to a new test.

The lowest 5 percent is still dominated by schools in Memphis and Nashville. Of the 84 worst-performing schools in Tennessee, nearly all are operated through Shelby County Schools, the ASD and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Chattanooga has six, Knoxville four, and Jackson two. Districts in Sevier and Fayette counties, which are primarily rural, have schools that are on a state list for the first time. As has been the case in the past, the bottom 5 percent schools are almost exclusively in low-income communities of color.

Because this year’s list is based on the most recent three years of data, it’s slightly skewed. Schools with less than three years of data can’t be included on this year’s list, even if they are in danger of being on the next priority list. That has to be considered when it comes to schools at two closely watched turnaround initiatives in Memphis — the Innovation Zone under Shelby County Schools and the ASD under the state. All iZone schools have at least three years of data as part of Shelby County Schools. But the state considers schools under the ASD, which are mostly charter conversions, to be new schools once they become part of the state-run district. Since the ASD has added new schools annually since 2012, some ASD schools don’t have three years of data to be used in calculating this year’s list.

Most of the first schools to enter the ASD and the iZone are still in the bottom 5 percent. While next school year is the fifth and final year to complete turnarounds under initial targets, both school initiatives are far from reaching their goals. Five out of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort in 2012 are still in the bottom 5 percent, despite the state-run district’s goal to catapult them to the state’s top quartile within five years. Only Brick Church College Preparatory in Nashville has moved out of priority range this year. In the Memphis iZone, which also began operating schools in 2012, five of the eight original schools remain in the bottom 5 percent. The three that have moved out of priority range this year are Ford Road Elementary, Douglass K-8 and Chickasaw Middle.

Below is the 2016 “cusp list” of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools based on three-year success rates. It is initially sorted from lowest to highest performing. You can resort the list, such as alphabetically by school or district, by clicking on one of the categories in the first row.

audit findings

Audit finds educational services lacking at Rikers Island, but corrections officials dispute report

PHOTO: Matt Green/Flickr

Corrections officials “systemically neglected” to ensure that young adult inmates knew they could enroll in school courses, according to an audit released Tuesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The audit also found that the city Department of Education failed to put mandated educational plans in place for incarcerated students with disabilities.

“That’s wrong, because if we’re going to reverse decades of backwards criminal justice policies, it’s going to be with bigger and better schools — not bigger and tougher prisons,” Stringer said in an emailed statement. “We have to do better.”

But officials from the city Department of Correction disputed the findings, and a response from the education department suggests the audit takes a narrow approach that misses “critical context.”

In 74 percent of sampled cases, the comptroller’s office couldn’t find evidence that inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 attended an orientation and were informed of their right to attend classes. In 68 percent of the sampled cases, auditors could not find required forms from inmates either accepting or rejecting educational services. In its response to the findings, a representative for the corrections department noted that some inmates may simply “refuse to sign the form.”

The corrections department wrote that it “disputes the overall finding” that inmates are not informed of their right to educational services. Furthermore, the audit “failed to capture” additional steps the department takes to do so.

In responses to the findings, included in the audit, corrections and education officials said all eligible students are offered the opportunity to attend classes. Every school day, the education department prints a list of eligible students who are in facilities with school programs, and the list is shared with corrections staff in the housing areas. Inmates who are interested can attend an information session and enroll immediately.

The corrections department’s response also states that inmates receive a handbook that includes information about enrolling in classes, and that signs are posted in common areas to inform inmates of their right to request educational services. Furthermore, the department conducts regular focus groups to create alternative programs of interest to young offenders who choose not to go to school, according to the response.

The audit also found that 48 percent of eligible students did not have a Special Education Plan, based on their Individualized Education Program, created for them within 30 days of beginning classes, as required. Those plans were never created for 36 percent of sample students, according to the audit.

The Department of Education responded that it is working to implement a new electronic system to track progress on education plans for students with disabilities, and that students who had such plans before being incarcerated continue to get the services they need.

The audit does note that all 16- and 17-year olds were receiving the educational services required by law. Those students have to attend school, whether they are incarcerated or not. Older students are eligible to receive educational services if they are under 21 years of age, have not already earned a high school diploma and will be incarcerated for 10 or more days.

Community voices

Memphians weigh in on Hopson’s investment plan for struggling schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Monday night to about 175 educators, parents and students gathered to learn about Shelby County Schools' plan to make new investments in struggling schools

After years of closing struggling schools, Shelby County Schools is changing course and preparing to make investments in them, beginning with 19 schools that are challenged by academics, enrollment, aging buildings and intergenerational poverty.

This May, 11 of those schools will receive “treatment plans” tailored to their needs and based on learnings from the Innovation Zone, the district’s 5-year-old school turnaround initiative. The other eight schools already are part of a plan announced last fall to consolidate them into three new buildings.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin talked up the new dynamic Monday night during a community meeting attended by about 175 educators, parents and students. In his proposed budget for next school year, Hopson has set aside $5.9 million to pay for supports for the 11 schools dubbed “critical focus” schools. 


Here’s the framework for the changes and which schools will be impacted.


Monday’s gathering was first in which Memphians got to publicly weigh in on the district’s new game plan. Here’s what several stakeholders had to say:

Quinterious Martin

Quinterious Martin, 10th-grader at Westwood High School:

“It really helped me to hear that the label of ‘critical’ is going to help us out, not pull us down. I was worried when I first heard our school would be on the list of critical schools, but I get it now. The point is to help the schools out, not make them feel worse. To me, one thing Westwood really needs is more classes to get us ready for our future careers, like welding or mechanics. My commitment tonight was to always improve in what I do.”

Deborah Calvin, a teacher at Springdale Elementary School:

“I enjoyed the presentation tonight. I think it’s so important to know everyone is on the same page. The plan will only be successful if everyone in the community is aware of what the goals are. I think they made it really clear tonight that just more money doesn’t help turn a school. It takes a lot of community support. We really need more parent involvement at Springdale. Children need support when they go home. They need someone to sit down with them and work through homework or read.”

Catherine Starks, parent at Trezevant High School:

“Honestly, I think this is just going through the motions and something to keep parents quiet. Some schools may be getting the supports they need, but not all of them are. Trezevant is one that is not. … We need good leadership and we need someone to be advocates for our kids. I want to see the kids at our school get the support they need from the principal, the guidance counselor, the superintendent. Trezevant has had negative everything, but now we need some positive attention. And we really need the community to step up.”

Neshellda Johnson and daughter Rhyan

Neshellda Johnson, fourth-grade teacher at Hawkins Mill Elementary School:

“Hawkins Mill has been in the bottom 5 percent for awhile and has been targeted (for takeover) by the state for about four consecutive years. …  It’s refreshing to see that, instead of putting us on the chopping block, the district is looking to actually invest in us and give us the tools we need so we can continue to have growth. … I’m looking to the district for academic supports with regards to reading, more teachers assistants, more time for teaching and less time for testing, and more after-school and summer enrichment programs. And in addition to supports for our students, I’m hopeful there will be supports offered for our parents. We have a need for mental health and counseling services in our area.”

You can view the district’s full presentation from Monday night below: