in limbo

With charter operator’s exit, Achievement School District mulls future for Memphis schools left behind

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Bobby White is the ASD's chief of external affairs.

Leaders of Tennessee’s Achievement School District are giving parents and teachers notice that two Memphis charter schools are in limbo with the exit next spring of Gestalt Community Schools as their operator.

The possibilities range from replacing Gestalt with one or more operators, to shifting management directly to the state-run district, to closing one or both schools and transferring students to other schools.

Whatever path is chosen, ASD leaders have set a Dec. 9 deadline to make a decision “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.

ASD leaders laid out the options during two meetings Monday with parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary.

Earlier this month, leaders of Memphis-based Gestalt announced plans to pull out of the two schools at the end of the school year. They cited chronic low enrollment as the chief reason. The network is the first to exit operations of an existing ASD school since 2012 when the turnaround district began to take control of low-performing schools, usually assigning them to charter operators.

“We’ve seen a 15 percent enrollment drop each year since we started at the schools,” CEO Yetta Lewis told Chalkbeat on Monday. “We tried new tactics, but the population of North Memphis keeps declining. We couldn’t provide the quality of education we wanted.”

This year, Klondike has about 200 students and operates at 33 percent of building capacity, while Humes has 320 students, which is about 69 percent of its capacity. The changing demographics of North Memphis also contributed to Shelby County Schools’ decision to close Northside High School earlier this year. Several other schools in the community are under-enrolled as well.

Shelby County Schools board member Teresa Jones, who was present at the Humes meeting Monday night, told Chalkbeat that the decline has been gradual. “It didn’t just happen last year. … It’s always been the case, even before Gestalt moved in,” she said.

Gestalt’s departure — after five years of operating Humes and four years at Klondike — as well as the population decline in North Memphis, will make it challenging for other charter operators to jump into the fray. Superintendent Malika Anderson told parents at Humes that the ASD is “racing” to vet operator candidates and that options eventually will be presented to a committee comprised of Humes and Klondike stakeholders.

Another option is for the ASD, which currently operates five schools under the management of its Achievement Schools, to step in and run one or both of the schools itself. The two schools also could be combined into a single K-8 school.

"Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

One idea not on the table is returning the schools to Shelby County Schools next year. The state wrested their control from the local district because the schools were on the state’s priority list of the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. Anderson told parents that the schools would be returned to Shelby County Schools only after they’ve been off the state’s priority list for two consecutive years.

“Despite the reduction in school-age students in this neighborhood, the ASD made a commitment that every child here deserves an excellent neighborhood school,” Anderson said.

Parents spoke up during the meetings and urged ASD leaders to keep their schools open, as well as their students’ teachers in place.

“My daughter could have gone to any school, but they chose here,” said Humes parent Hilarie Barch. “This school has the most highly educated, most qualified staff I have ever seen. And my kids have attended private and optional schools. You’ve got to keep the staff.”

White told parents that charter operators have full control over decisions regarding staffing and school culture.

“This is just a rehearsal,” he said. “When operators are identified or express interest, we’ll ensure that you have the opportunity to share the same things we’ve heard tonight.”

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.”