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.

turnaround titan

Former Memphis principal will lead iZone, turnaround work for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Memphis Daily News
Former Memphis principal Antonio Burt, shown here with kindergarten teacher Britney Batson, helped lead Ford Road Elementary School to double-digit proficiency growth in 2013. Burt has returned to Memphis as assistant superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

A former turnaround principal is returning to Memphis as an assistant superintendent overseeing the Innovation Zone and other school turnaround work for Shelby County Schools, a spokeswoman confirmed Monday.

Antonio Burt started his new job last week under Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, for whom he worked previously as a principal in the iZone that she supervised. He’ll take the helm of the nationally known turnaround program and also provide oversight for the district’s other schools performing in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Those include some schools receiving new resources this year under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s new plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin has been chief of schools since her promotion from regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone.

The appointment is the first big hire under Griffin, who was promoted in January to supervise and support all of the district’s principals and teachers. It also continues a reshuffling of top academic positions since Griffin’s promotion and the departure of academics chief Heidi Ramirez a month later.

The district has no plans to replace Ramirez at this time, said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

Burt was an iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School until his departure in 2015 to work for the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that helps to recruit, train and place effective teachers in high-need districts. He came back to Memphis soon after to work for the state-run Achievement School District, though only for six months, according to his Linkedin page.

For the last year and a half, Burt was director of school transformation at Florida’s Pinellas County Schools, whose low-performing schools were analyzed in the Tampa Bay Times’ award-winning series Failure Factories. He had been hired to lead a new “transformation zone” which, similar to the iZone model, provides extra resources to struggling schools.

Burt began his education career in 2003 with the former Memphis City Schools and in 2012 took the helm at Ford Road, where he gained national attention for his turnaround work and became a champion of principal autonomy.

“We are very excited have have Dr. Burt back in our district serving our highest-need schools,” a district spokeswoman said. “We know that with his proven track record in school turnaround, we will continue to move toward our goal of providing high-quality school options for every child.”

Charter move

Here are the losers as a Memphis charter school packs up and moves across town

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Derek King served as director of culture at Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which is relocating across town. He's among the faculty who won't make the move.

Edwina Hankins thought long and hard about where to send her son for his eighth-grade year.

A longtime resident of north Memphis, she was looking for a new start for Quinten, who struggled with grades while attending a traditional local school under Shelby County Schools. She also was concerned about reports of violence there.

So when the state took control of Quinten’s middle school last summer and chose Memphis Scholars to reopen it as a charter school, Hankins decided to take a chance and invest in the change.

“His Memphis Scholars grades started pretty rocky, but the teachers worked with him pretty great, and he did best he’s ever done,” she said of her family’s experience at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School.

Now Hankins is grappling with the reality that the charter school won’t be there for her elementary-age daughter when she reaches sixth grade, or for students who had planned to return this fall.

Memphis Scholars announced in late May that it’s leaving the Raleigh neighborhood it signed up to serve — and moving 16 miles across town to operate alongside the charter management organization’s Florida-Kansas Elementary School. It’s offering to bus Raleigh students every day to and from the new campus.

Officials at Memphis Scholars say they are just trying to be good stewards of scarce neighborhood resources that are spread too thin in Raleigh among several school turnaround programs. But the decision has frustrated students, parents, faculty and neighborhood leaders who had committed to the charter school when it opened last fall under Memphis Scholars.

“I referred people to that school …,” Hankins said in an exasperated tone. “I assumed they would be in our neighborhood for the long haul.”

The school’s faculty are equally disappointed. They learned about the move during the last week of classes, and were told they would have to reapply for a fewer number of spots. Only three educators have taken Memphis Scholars up on that offer, according to charter organization leaders.

“Moving to Florida-Kansas was a business decision,” said Derek King, who opted not to reapply for his job as director of culture and football coach. “It had nothing to do with the kids. Teachers and parents feel like this wasn’t given a real chance. We were only here a year.”

The cross-town relocation is the latest in a series of strategic moves that began after the state-run Achievement School District took control of the low-performing middle school last summer and picked Memphis Scholars to step in. Seeking to retain both students and funding, Shelby County Schools then added middle school grades next door at Raleigh-Egypt High School, which shares a campus with the Memphis Scholars school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A red line on a hallway floor is designed to separate middle school students from those in upper grades at the newly reconfigured Raleigh-Egypt High School.

That set up a peculiar arrangement in which both schools — one operated by the state, and one by the local district — were seeking to enroll the same middle school students from the Raleigh community. By the end of its first school year, Memphis Scholars had 189 students enrolled, only half of the number it was aiming for, making it difficult to fund the kind of expensive supports needed for school turnaround work.

Memphis Scholars Director Nick Patterson said the nail in the coffin came this spring when Shelby County Schools announced plans to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School into the district’s Innovation Zone, another turnaround program. That plan created “two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” he said.

The charter operator entered a month of talks with the ASD and the State Department of Education, which approved the cross-town move — effectively closing Raleigh-Egypt Middle and providing a middle school option for elementary-age students at Florida-Kansas to stay with Memphis Scholars.

Whether or not that sticks is up in the air. Leaders for Shelby County Schools say Memphis Scholars can’t just pick up and move to another building where they already had tried unsuccessfully to add grades. The district is exploring legal options to keep that from happening.

“It’s one thing for the ASD to say we don’t like the school building. … We’re going to move a block away and still service that community,” said Rodney Moore, legal counsel for Shelby County Schools. “But nobody in their right mind can believe they have any interest in serving the Raleigh-Egypt community. They’ve essentially indicated that they want to take away the academic resources from that school building, move it across town, which is essentially robbing that community of valuable resources.”

Patterson says the move complies with state law and makes sense given the decision by Shelby County Schools to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School to the iZone.

“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,” he said in announcing the move.

As for a potential legal challenge, Patterson is optimistic it won’t come to that. “Our hope is this situation is resolved quickly so students and families can start school as they’ve been planning to do,” he said.

Even though the relocated school will no longer be in Raleigh, Memphis Scholars plans to keep the school’s Raleigh-Egypt name — to avoid confusion, according to Patterson.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The school building being left behind will stand empty this fall.

But confusion lingers for students and parents who feel left behind in Raleigh, many of whom didn’t find out their school was moving until well into the summer.

“This is the first time I’m hearing of the school moving …,” said Amber Knox, a mother of two rising seventh-graders, last month. “But I can tell you they won’t be attending next year. That’s way too far. They’re going to inconvenience a lot of parents.”

Patterson said Memphis Scholars is working with parent groups like Memphis Lift and Fathers & Education to make sure all parents are informed about the move and the transportation option.

Still, several outgoing teachers think it’s more likely that parents will choose another school, just as most faculty members are.

“It was a sudden shock for the teachers, but also for the whole neighborhood,” said Angela Moore, who taught sixth grade for Memphis Scholars. “I have students still calling (and) asking me where they should go to school. There’s a lot of confusion, because a lot of parents still don’t know the school is closing and moving. I’m trying to figure out how parents are going to know about a bus when they didn’t even tell parents they were closing.”