What's the Plan?

When will the Achievement School District return schools to their original districts? Not anytime soon, officials say

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Achievement School District superintendent Malika Anderson, Shelby County Schools chief of innovation officer Brad Leon, Nashville attorney Mark North, and Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson answer questions about school turnaround at the House education committees' summer study.

Schools taken over by Tennessee’s turnaround district were never meant to remain under state control forever.

So when Achievement School District officials said Wednesday that it could be at least a decade before they allow local districts to run the schools again, officials from the local districts were dismayed.

The 2010 state law that created the ASD to take over low-performing schools and improve them provided some instructions for returning schools to local districts — but the law didn’t specify a specific process, and is hard to understand. What’s clear is that after five years of operation, Shelby County Schools, the district most affected by the initiative, is eager to run its schools again.

“The plan on how schools should come back is opaque, to put it generously,” Brad Leon told state lawmakers during a hearing about the ASD’s future. As Shelby County Schools chief innovation officer, Leon oversees schools in the Innovation Zone, a district-run turnaround effort that has received national attention for its test score gains.

ASD superintendent Malika Anderson told lawmakers that she and state education officials worked all summer to interpret the law and create an exit plan for schools according to it. The plan they generated: Charter schools cannot exit the district until they’ve shown improved results for nine years, and schools that the ASD runs directly can’t exit until they’ve shown improved results for five years.

“We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a single year or two and [schools] wouldn’t slide back if they were returned back to local oversight,” Anderson said.

Officials with Shelby County Schools, where 31 long-struggling schools have been assigned to the ASD — taking students and funding with them — are questioning that approach. (The district includes two schools in Nashville and could take over schools in Chattanooga next year.)

It doesn’t make sense that the longer a school under the ASD’s supervision fails to post test score gains, the longer the ASD controls it, Leon said.

“The ASD should be held accountable just like Shelby County Schools is held accountable, and should be relinquishing schools when they are not performing,” he said.

He and other Shelby County officials want legislators to change the law so that the ASD can run schools only for five years, the amount of time that they originally said it would take to propel schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state into the top quarter.

“If you have done the work you needed to do, if you have improved those schools, bravo, you’ve done the work, schools should return to the district,” Leon told lawmakers. “If you haven’t done the work in five years and schools are still underperforming, than you need to be held accountable, too.”

Anderson said she is optimistic that at least some schools in her district are already on the trajectory the district promised. Two ASD charter schools, Brick Church College Prep in Nashville and KIPP University Middle in Memphis, have exited the lowest-scoring 5 percent of schools statewide. Whitney Achievement Elementary, a Memphis school that the district runs directly, is on the bubble.

“I’m really confident that probably about 40 percent of [schools] are well on their way to getting out on the timeline we’ve identified,” Anderson said.


Clarification, Aug. 22, 2016: This version clarifies that schools in the Innovation Zone are not charter schools.

packing up

Charter school in Tennessee’s turnaround district relocating out of neighborhood it signed up to serve

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt sign next to faded letters of Shelby County Schools name for the middle school.

When officials at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School learned that another school on the same campus could get extra help for its students, they made a big decision: to pick up and move.

Memphis Scholars announced Monday that the school will reopen next year in a building 16 miles away, where the charter operator already runs another school under Tennessee’s turnaround district. The network will pay to bus students from the Raleigh neighborhood across Memphis daily.

The move is the latest and most dramatic episode in an ongoing enrollment war between the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools in the Raleigh neighborhood.

Most recently, Shelby County Schools proposed adding Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High, which shares a campus with Memphis Scholars now, into the district’s Innovation Zone — a change that would bring new resources and, the district hopes, more students.

The Innovation Zone represents a “high-quality intervention” for students in the neighborhood, according to Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson. But he said it makes the presence of his school less essential.

Shelby County Schools’ proposal “creates two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” Patterson said in a statement. “Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools.”

The move also allows the network to solve two persistent problems. First, enrollment at Raleigh-Egypt Middle is less than half of what it was supposed to be, putting so much pressure on the school’s budget that the network obtained an energy audit to help it cut costs. That’s because Shelby County Schools expanded the adjacent high school to include middle school grades, in an effort to retain students and funding.

Plus, Memphis Scholars ran into legal obstacles to adding middle school grades to its Florida-Kansas school. Moving an existing middle school to the Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary campus circumvents those obstacles. Because state law requires that at least 75 percent of students at Achievement School District schools come from the neighborhood zone or other low-performing schools on the state’s “priority list,” the charter school can welcome any middle schooler in its new neighborhood.

But network officials want to keep serving their existing students, and they’re offering transportation to make that possible.

It’s unclear if Raleigh students will follow the charter school across town. Some parents reached by Chalkbeat on Monday said they hadn’t heard about the changes yet, but their students said they found out today.

“I hadn’t heard about the changes, but I don’t like that too much,” said Reco Barnett, who has two daughters who attend the school. “We’re here because it’s right by where we live. It’s right in our area. I don’t know what we’ll do yet, I just now found out when you told me, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that. That’s a long ways away from us.”

The move would free up the building for use by Shelby County Schools. District officials did not provide comment Monday.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

Notable departure

Last original leader resigns from Tennessee’s school turnaround district

The state-run Achievement School District began taking over schools in Memphis in 2012.

Margo Roen, who has been instrumental in recruiting local and national charter operators to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, has resigned as its deputy superintendent.

PHOTO: Achievement School District
Margo Roen

She said her departure, which is effective June 30, is not related to the State Department of Education’s plans to downsize and restructure the turnaround district by July 1.

“This decision (to leave) is an extremely hard one, and does not in any way diminish the immense belief I have in our schools and kids, and my admiration, appreciation, and respect for the ASD team, operators, and partners in this work,” Roen told Chalkbeat this week in an email.

With Roen’s departure, the ASD will lose its last original leader. She joined the state-run district in 2011 after its creation as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan. Superintendent Malika Anderson, who was once deputy to founding superintendent Chris Barbic, joined a few months later, along with Troy Williams, the ASD’s chief operating officer.

In addition to overseeing charter recruitment efforts, Roen has co-led the ASD’s Operator Advisory Council to give charter leaders more say in ASD decisions and collaborate across the district’s 33 schools.

Roen said she will remain in Memphis and plans to work on projects with school districts across the nation.