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.

school improvement

Tennessee reveals quicker exit plan for schools in the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson presents an update on the school turnaround district to the State Board of Education.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson gets the same question over and over: How can a school get out of Tennessee’s turnaround district, which the state created in 2010 to fix low-performing schools?

Now, for the first time, she has some concrete answers.

A school will return to its local district if it improves and stays off of two consecutive “priority lists” of the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

But a school also will be released if it continues to struggle under the ASD and makes the priority list two more times.

The maximum a school can stay in the state-run district is 10 years.

“Our commitment is high and true to the schools that we serve,” Anderson told the State Board of Education Thursday in Nashville. “The role of the ASD is to intervene swiftly in the lowest-performing schools in the state, improve them and return them to local oversight.”

The details are significant because they allow schools to return to their local districts sooner and more easily than previously outlined by the state.

The changes are part of Tennessee’s new school improvement plan in response to a new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The revised approach also gives districts more time before their schools can be taken over by the state — and more input into how and when that happens.

“We are really moving from what we call a ‘start-up phase’ of the Achievement School District to a more sustainable phase,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, adding that the ASD remains the state’s “most rigorous intervention.”

When district leaders in Memphis asked for clarity on an exit plan last year, it appeared that schools could remain in the ASD in perpetuity, returning only if they sustained improvement for at least nine years. Memphis is home to all but two of the state-run district’s 33 schools, many of which have lagged behind schools in Shelby County’s own turnaround program.

Anderson told the State Board that the state-run district has been an important player in Tennessee’s school improvement strategy, and has pushed local districts to do more for their lowest-performing schools than ever before.

“The catalytic effect of the ASD is real,” she said.

iZone lite

How Memphis is taking lessons from its Innovation Zone to other struggling schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Sharon Griffin, now chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, confers with Laquita Tate, principal of Ford Road Elementary, part of the Innovation Zone during a 2016 visit.

One of the few qualms that Memphians have with Shelby County’s heralded school turnaround initiative is that more schools aren’t in it.

The district’s Innovation Zone has garnered national attention for its test score gains, but it’s expensive. Each iZone school requires an extra $600,000 annually to pay for interventions such as an extra hour in the school day, teacher signing and retention bonuses, and additional specialists for literacy, math and behavior.

But instead of just replicating the whole iZone model, the district is trying a few components on some of its other struggling schools.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitehaven High School is the anchor school for the Empowerment Zone, the first initiative to employ lessons learned from the iZone.

Last year, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson launched the Empowerment Zone, a scaled-down version of the iZone for five Whitehaven-area schools in danger of slipping to the lowest rankings in the state. The iZone’s most expensive part — one hour added to the school day — was excluded, but the district kept teacher pay incentives and principal freedoms. And teachers across the five schools meet regularly to share what’s working in their classrooms.

This year, district leaders are seeking to inject iZone lessons in 11 struggling schools that Hopson would rather transform than close. His team has been meeting with the principals of those “critical focus schools” to come up with customized plans to propel them out of the state’s list of lowest-performing schools.

As part of that effort, Hopson’s budget plan calls for providing $5.9 million in supports, including $600,000 for retention bonuses for top-ranked teachers at those schools. Spread across the 11 schools, that investment would shake out to about $100,000 less per school than what the iZone spends.

“We’re trying to provide targeted academic support based on the individual school needs. And that can include a lot of our learnings from the iZone as well as a host of other suggestions,” Hopson told school board members last month.

The iZone launched in 2012 and now has 21 schools in some of Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative was thrust into the national spotlight after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study found the turnaround effort had outpaced test gains of similarly poor-performing Memphis schools in a state-run turnaround district.

Overseeing the iZone has been Sharon Griffin, the former principal who has become Hopson’s chief catalyst and ambassador on school improvements happening in Tennessee’s largest district. In January, he promoted Griffin from chief of the iZone to chief of schools for the entire district.

Griffin has long touted good leadership as the key to the iZone’s successes. The turnaround model relies on placing top principals in struggling schools and giving them the autonomy to recruit effective teachers to put in front of students. Academic supports and daily collaboration across iZone schools are also important tenets.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Shelby County Schools has branded its Innovation Zone to showcase one of its most successful initiatives.

In her new role, Griffin is trying to equip principals across the school system to carry out the district’s academic strategies and spread the iZone culture of leadership and collaboration districtwide.

The latest “critical focus” initiative represents the most significant investment so far to magnify the iZone model. It also shows the level of confidence that Hopson has in Griffin, her team, and their strategies.

“We recognize that if we truly want to turn around our schools, it can’t be just one teacher at a time. It has to be one team at a time,” Griffin said Monday. “And we know if we hire the most effective leader, they hire the most effective teachers, and we’re building a team and a cadre of greatness. … Human capital is going to be our secret weapon.”

As for which iZone components will be culled this spring for each of the 11 critical-focus areas schools, that’s under review. In keeping with the iZone model, those schools are being assessed to create a “school profile” that will determine the course for interventions. Among the possibilities: Adding staff, lengthening the school day, and ramping up after-school programs.

“We’re looking at all our schools and making sure that we’re not duplicating our resources. Then we’re taking additional resources and aligning them to one mission,” Griffin said. “We want to give our schools an opportunity to put their own spin on an aligned curriculum and professional development.”