Grassroots growth

More local charter operators sought by Tennessee’s Achievement School District

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teacher Marva Bell checks a student's work at Libertas School of Memphis, a charter school run by one of seven Tennessee-based operators in the state-run Achievement School District.

While most schools under Tennessee’s Achievement School District are run by charter networks based out of state, some local operators have been part of the mix too — a pool that the state-run district wants to expand in its turnaround work in Memphis and Nashville.

Earlier this month, the ASD held the first of four trainings designed to cultivate local operators to be part of the district’s future expansion.

The trainings, titled “Local Operator Cultivation Sessions,” invite community leaders in Memphis and Nashville to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD, tasked with turning around the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools.

The sessions are aimed at developing local talent, while also acknowledging that a local-national mix is necessary to support the ASD’s growth given the limited number of high-quality national networks.

“The ASD has really tried to prioritize local charters,” said Chantavia Burton, director of portfolio management, during discussions with the sole attendee Thursday evening at the second training, this one in Memphis. The state-run district needs to “cultivate more local talent” to tackle turnaround work, she added.

Of the ASD’s 13 charter operators, six are from out of state, but those national networks operate more than half of the district’s 28 charter-run schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, the visionary behind the ASD’s charter-based turnaround model, expressed concern last year about whether there are enough high-quality operators to go around as more states launch state-run districts like Tennessee’s. Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania are among states that recently have created, or are considering creating, such initiatives.

Prioritizing local charter operators is especially significant in Memphis, where opposition has been strongest against state takeovers of local low-performing schools. Many parents and community leaders have questioned the motivations and intentions of “outsiders” taking control of neighborhood schools, as well as the authenticity of community engagement efforts by the ASD and its operators, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 merger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools and the subsequent departure of six mostly white municipalities that created their own districts — both of which had racial undertones.

ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron said it’s important to have operators who “understand the culture and context of the community,” which is why, she said, “we’re getting as many local operators as we can.”

The push for local operators comes in the same month that Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced plans to exit as overseer of two ASD schools in North Memphis. Gestalt leaders cited low enrollment as the reason behind their decision.

The trainings also are happening during a year when ASD leaders opted to take a year off from school takeovers in the aftermath of the failed rollout of the state’s new standardized TNReady tests. District leaders said they would use this year to “continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017.”

That means that ASD leaders are laying the groundwork for future expansion down the road.

lessons learned

Vacant homes, enrollment cap: Gestalt’s CEO on why one of the ASD’s first charter operators is also the first out

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis says it was a hard decision for the Memphis-based charter network to step away from two state-run schools in its hometown.

Gestalt was an early investor in Tennessee’s unprecedented school turnaround initiative. The network was among the first to sign up for the tough task through the Achievement School District, which launched in Memphis in 2012. But last month, Gestalt also became the initiative’s first operator to announce plans to exit the state-run district.

Left behind will be the students, teachers and neighborhoods of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary schools, who are waiting to learn their fate after Gestalt’s departure at the end of this school year.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Lewis puts the blame for the pullout squarely on chronic under-enrollment borne from declining population in North Memphis and exacerbated by the ASD’s state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment. She says even a 2015 state law that allowed ASD schools to enroll up to 25 percent of their students from outside of their neighborhoods was not enough to keep Gestalt in the game.

In a recent Q&A, Lewis talks about Gestalt’s pullout, its challenges as a state-authorized charter operator, and what its leaders have learned during its years with the Achievement School District.

Here are some of the highlights, which have been condensed for brevity:

What led to the decision to leave the ASD?

It’s about enrollment. We are starting our fourth year at Klondike and our fifth year at Humes. We’ve seen a 15 percent decrease in enrollment each year. We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis. There are rows of vacant homes. The school-age population has dropped by 35 percent. Klondike is on the same road as Northside High School (which was closed over the summer by Shelby County Schools), so we knew we weren’t the only schools in that area facing this challenge. We don’t have the capacity to take the loss of two schools on enrollment.

When did you loop in the ASD on your decision? What came next?

Our first official conversation was in October. We were hoping for a big push in enrollment this year. But after Labor Day, we could see that the numbers weren’t going to turn around. When we know something definite, we want to tell our stakeholders as soon as we possibly can. We don’t have a solution on what’s next for these schools, but we want those stakeholders to be involved in the decision-making process. (ASD officials then held meetings with Humes and Klondike parents and faculty in partnership with Gestalt. They’ve set a Dec. 9 deadline to decide their fate in order “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.)

After this school year, you’ll still have four schools authorized under Shelby County Schools. What are the biggest differences in operating in the ASD vs. SCS?

Turnaround work changed everything for us, but it’s not easy. Not getting a list of eligible students from Shelby County Schools made it difficult (for our ASD schools). We had 180 students on a list for middle school last year, but this year we didn’t receive any list. That was a struggle for us. The list was some level of contact for us. It was a very big challenge to get what we needed. If there’s anything I could change about the ASD, it’d be the ability to have a working list of eligible kids.

Another big difference is the enrollment cap for ASD schools. The population of North Memphis is declining, leaving fewer and fewer students in our zone. But we had families from outside of North Memphis who wanted the Gestalt experience. It’s a big difference for us that the enrollment restraints aren’t there when we open schools under Shelby County Schools.

Would you open another charter school with the ASD in the future?

If conditions were different with enrollment, we would consider operating with the ASD again. We don’t open a school for the sake of growth. When we opened ASD schools, we saw a need for what we do. But enrollment numbers over the years have made it really hard to do what we do. We provide one-to-one technology, a computer for every scholar. We provide every student with a uniform. It’s expensive, and we didn’t have the numbers in North Memphis for our program to be sustainable there. Our program provides educational support that every child deserves.

What are some of the biggest lessons Gestalt has learned in its school turnaround work with the ASD?

Our teacher-leadership program. That wouldn’t have happened without turnaround work. The ASD experience really showed us the value of cultivating teacher leaders in our schools, and we have a program in place now.

Also, our community partnerships, such as Behavior Services MidSouth, Communities in Schools, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Our work with the ASD taught us how it’s not enough to provide strong academics, but you need strong social and emotional infrastructure as well. Community partners in our schools help us to do the work to serve the whole child. And that’s ultimately the biggest lesson, that we want our kids to feel known, loved, supported and educated.

ASD copycats

Tennessee’s school turnaround leader weighs in on Georgia’s rebuff of similar model

Malika Anderson is superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee.

Georgia voters soundly rejected a proposal to create their own version of Tennessee’s school-turnaround district this week. But the leader of Tennessee’s effort said Wednesday that the vote shouldn’t be the final word there on creating alternatives for failing public schools.

“While Georgia citizens voted not to implement the Opportunity School District, it is my hope that the voters, schools, and the legislature remain committed to great school options for all students,” said Malika Anderson, superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, or ASD.

The amendment, on Georgia’s ballot Tuesday, would have allowed the state to assume control of struggling local schools and the taxpayer money funding them. Backed by Gov. Nathan Deal, the Opportunity School District would have been partly modeled after the state-run ASD, launched in 2012 to intervene in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools with the goal of quickly turning them around. The ASD relies mostly on charter-school operators for its work, and results so far have been mixed in Memphis and Nashville.

But the proposal in Georgia was defeated Tuesday by a 60-40 margin, after opponents raised more than $4 million for television ads telling voters that schools and funding should remain under local control.

Anderson participated in several forums leading up to Election Day to help Georgia voters understand the ASD’s role in Tennessee. She has called the district a “catalyst” for academic improvement in Tennessee.

“Just like in Tennessee, Georgia students deserve access to high-quality schools in every neighborhood,” she said.

Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are among other states that recently have created, or are considering creating, similar school turnaround districts.

Here is a sampling of Chalkbeat stories about the ASD in Tennessee: