Warning List

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

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
School turnaround work in Tennessee has focused mostly on schools in Memphis but is expected to expand to other cities under the state's new accountability plan.

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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”