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.”

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.

school turnaround lessons

Too many good teachers are quitting Tennessee’s Achievement School District, researchers say

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Students at Cherokee Elementary, an iZone school in Memphis, engage with their teacher. Tennessee's iZones have had success recruiting teachers with high marks in the state's teacher evaluation system.

A growing question in Memphis and across Tennessee has been why local school improvement efforts seem to be outperforming the state’s 5-year-old flagship initiative.

Now, researchers charged with studying that initiative have a hypothesis: Schools in the Achievement School District have struggled to hold on to their highest-rated teachers.

For their latest report, released on Tuesday, researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College partnered with the University of Kentucky to examine the extent to which the ASD and local turnaround initiatives called innovation zones, or “iZones,” have been able to recruit and retain teachers with top ratings.

They found that ASD teachers left their jobs far more frequently than teachers in iZone schools in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga.

That wasn’t a surprise the first year a school was in the ASD, given the requirement that teachers in turnaround schools must reapply for their jobs.

But even in following years, fully half of the ASD’s teachers left its schools each year. Among iZone schools, the corresponding rates were 40 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

In both initiatives, lower-rated teachers were replaced by better ones. Researchers found this to be more pronounced in iZone schools where, on Tennessee’s 5-point scale, incoming teachers scored an average of more than a half point higher than those moving to other schools or leaving the profession. In the ASD, incoming teachers averaged just over a third of a point  higher than outgoing teachers.

“The story seems to be one of general success in getting effective teachers in the door of these turnaround schools, and the iZone schools are also managing to keep and improve them,” said Vanderbilt’s Gary Henry, who co-authored the report.

Henry said disruption is a key part of school turnaround work, and that it might be necessary to lose some bad teachers before a school can thrive. But just as necessary is improving teachers already at a school — and that takes time.

“The iZone hired good teachers, kept good teachers, and their teachers improved,” he said.

Both iZones and the ASD had more difficulty recruiting good teachers for the schools they absorbed in the 2014-2015 school year. Henry said it’s not clear why that happened.

It could be because both the ASD and the Memphis iZone, the largest of the three, added high schools, and it’s typically harder to get effective high school teachers to switch schools. Or, it could be that Memphis, where nearly all of the ASD schools are located, needs more good teachers in general.

“Memphis might be reaching a ceiling on the number of effective teachers willing to move into priority schools,” he said of schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent. “They’re going to have to expand their pool in order to attract the type of talent needed to transform the lowest-performing schools.”

The researchers note that the iZone gains might not last. The one in Memphis has used teacher pay incentives to lure high-quality teachers to its schools, relying at least in part on philanthropic funds. Without those funds, it’s not clear if the iZone could be expanded or sustained.

“It’s terrific when philanthropies are able to support mechanisms proven to work,” he said, “but in the long run, it’s uncertain whether Memphis will be able to maintain these gains.”

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson said she is heartened that more effective teachers have moved to working in historically low-performing schools. She attributed the ASD’s initial recruiting challenges to being “a big unknown,” but expressed optimism about the future.

“As we increase recruitment and retention of effective teachers in our schools, the ASD’s growing priority is to champion the efforts of local districts, community partners and the Department of Education to strengthen the pipeline and critical supports for effective teachers in all schools,” Anderson said in a statement.

This report follows a high-profile 2015 study that showed schools in Tennessee’s iZones had positive effects on student learning, while the ASD’s effects were statistically insignificant.  Henry said Vanderbilt researchers hope to examine in the future how school quality was impacted at the schools left by highly rated teachers to go to the iZone or the ASD.

You can read the full report here.