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.

iZone expansion

Raleigh-Egypt would join Memphis Innovation Zone under Hopson budget

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Raleigh-Egypt High School Principal Bo Griffin talks with students in the school’s hallways in 2016.

Shelby County’s high-profile school turnaround program, which is also one of its more expensive initiatives, would grow this fall by two more schools under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposed budget.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School emerged this week as a second school planned for the Innovation Zone. The superintendent already had tagged Sheffield Elementary to enter the transformation model.

If Hopson’s budget passes, the iZone would grow to 23 schools — all of which seek to significantly increase student scores through intense interventions such as extending the school day by one hour.

The annual cost to have both schools in the iZone is $1.4 million, which is higher than the usual $600,000-per-school price tag. That’s because of Raleigh-Egypt’s expanded grades and Sheffield’s higher-than-average population of English learners, said Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin.

“We’re in a unique position this year because of the additional funds,” Griffin said of the district’s balanced budget. “And we want to make sure we’re supporting schools, not just when they get totally critical like what has been the history of iZone schools ready for takeover, but to put some supports in place to support them before they are extremely critical.”

The proposed expansion would be the iZone’s first in the Raleigh and Parkway Village communities of Memphis.

Griffin said American Way Middle and Sheffield High are likely iZone candidates for the following year to complete Sheffield Elementary’s feeder pattern.

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.

Raleigh-Egypt has been under a microscope since 2012 when the high school made the state’s “priority school” list of its 5 percent lowest-performing schools. In 2015, the school almost was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District but was spared at the 11th hour when academic growth exceeded expectations.

This school year, Shelby County leaders reconfigured the high school to include middle school grades after the ASD took control of nearby Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and assigned it to a charter operator. That maneuver allowed the local district to retain more than half of the middle school students and funding that it would have lost to the state-run district.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School has about 900 students.

Sharon Griffin said no decision has been made about whether to retain Principal Bo Griffin, who has led Raleigh-Egypt High’s academic growth since 2014, in its transition to the iZone.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle School was briefly considered as a candidate for the iZone last year as leaders of the local and state-run districts tried to avoid having two middle schools on the same campus. But the idea was abandoned.

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.