ASD

Tennessee’s school turnaround district might lose some power. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is making big changes to the way it addresses its lowest-performing schools, with big implications for its pioneering state turnaround district — and for the local urban districts where struggling schools are concentrated.

The state’s Achievement School District has wielded significant power in Tennessee since its launch in 2012, wresting control of 33 schools from local districts, recruiting charter operators to turn them around, and generating rancorous debate in the process. The school improvement model has been closely watched across the nation and is being emulated in states such as Nevada and North Carolina.

But under changes prompted by a new federal education law, Tennessee’s ASD would have less flexibility over which schools it can take over, while local districts would have more time to turn around the schools themselves. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen estimated Monday that, under the new plan, at least 12 schools would be eligible for state takeover in the 2017-18 school year, down from 18 in 2015.

Memphis would be the city most impacted since it’s home to the greatest number of “priority schools” — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent — as well as nearly all of the ASD’s schools.

Under the new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Tennessee must give local districts the opportunity to improve priority schools on their own before swooping in with its most rigorous intervention: ASD takeover.

The state’s takeover of neighborhood schools has been especially contentious in Memphis, particularly after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study suggested that students at ASD schools are performing mostly at the same low levels that they would have had they remained with their local district.

The State Department of Education unveiled a preview of its proposed plan for ESSA last week, which touches on issues like accountability, school counselors, and teacher preparation, in addition to school improvement. State officials will gather feedback on the draft during town hall meetings in Memphis on Wednesday and in Nashville on Thursday, and submit Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.

Here’s what we know about the school improvement part of the plan:

What will happen to priority schools, and which ones will be eligible for ASD takeover?

Tennessee’s proposed plan would separate the state’s priority list into three tracks.

Schools will be on the first track if they meet two conditions:

  • They are on at least one of the previous priority lists, in 2012 and 2014, as well as the 2017 priority list coming out this summer;
  • They have had the same intervention, like becoming part of the district’s innovation zone, for three or more years without improvement according to criteria to be set by the state, or have had no intervention at all.

The second track will consist of schools on the 2017 list and at least one earlier list, but that have high growth scores. These schools will have until 2020, when the state will release the next priority list, to continue their turnaround work without the possibility of ASD intervention.

The third track will consist of schools on the priority list for the first time in 2017. They will enter an unprecedented partnership with the state, working to draft and implement a turnaround plan based on national research and evidence. The hope is that by 2020, the plan will have worked, and they will be off of the priority list.

Though districts will have more power in school turnaround, McQueen emphasizes that the state will be an active partner.

“This is not the district on its own,” she said. “There would be a great deal of state partnership in terms of planning, and state criteria to be met.”

What will happen to low-performing schools already in the ASD?

McQueen said she hears that question a lot from local district leaders but doesn’t have an answer for them yet. She said the state is working to address the issue, which was the topic of a state legislative hearing this summer.

The question is important because the ASD’s effect on schools has been uneven. Many of the ASD’s first schools, taken from local districts in 2012, are still in the bottom 5 percent, according to the most recently available test scores.

Currently, only the ASD has authority over its own schools. Under state law, if an ASD charter operator underperforms for three consecutive years, the state-run district can replace them with a higher-performing operator.

“Of course, you can’t do that indefinitely, so we will be making clear exit criteria as well,” McQueen said. “Some of this will be evolving, based on what we learn about the schools.”

How will 2017’s priority list be different than in years past?

The state’s priority list has been based on a ranking of schools by the percentage of students who passed end-of-year tests for math, English and science. But under Tennessee’s proposed plan, the state wants to take growth into account.

That way, “you’re not doomed to be a priority school just because you’re in the bottom 5 percent according to achievement,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of research.

Because of a 2015 state law, priority schools will also get a new label: F. Beginning next fall, all Tennessee schools will be assigned a letter grade based on several criteria. As the lowest performing schools, priority schools will receive automatic Fs.

Some educators worry that the school grading system, which was not endorsed by the State Department of Education, might further stigmatize schools that already are struggling. State officials hope to offset that by giving priority schools more resources and support through direct funding and competitive grants.

“We realize it’s often the poorest communities who will have schools with the lowest grade — but who will also need those resources,” Towns said.

The Fine Print

Why charter operators exiting Tennessee’s turnaround district can walk away

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Each of the state-run Achievement School District charter operators have an agreement that allows them to close for any reason.

When two charter school operators announced plans to leave Tennessee’s turnaround district this spring, many people were surprised that they could break their 10-year agreements.

“How could any charter management company come into a community and up and decide we’re not going to play anymore?” asked Quincey Morris, a lifelong resident of North Memphis, home to two schools that abruptly lost their charter operator.

But in Memphis and across the nation, there’s nothing to stop charter operators from leaving, even when they promise to be there for a long time.

Contracts signed by both Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP contain no penalties for exiting the Achievement School District before agreements run out, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

And by design, that’s not unusual in the charter sector. For better or worse, operators are given that autonomy, according to Dirk Tillotson, a lawyer and founder of a charter incubation organization in California.

“There hasn’t been much attention paid to closures in the law,” Tillotson said of charter laws nationwide. “The laws are more forward-looking than backward-looking when things might blow up.”

That lack of clarity has suddenly started to matter a lot in Memphis, where charter schools are struggling to attract enough students to stay viable. Both KIPP and Gestalt blame their impending pullouts on under-enrollment — a challenge faced by more than half of the 31 Memphis schools operated by the ASD.

But having enough students wasn’t the focus when the ASD began taking over low-performing schools in 2012 and recruiting charter operators to turn them around. The assumption was that charter schools would have too many students and not enough seats, especially if those schools were under new management.

And their contracts reflected that line of thinking. The paperwork detailed how enrollment lotteries should be conducted if space remained after locally zoned students had registered. There was no guidance on what should happen if a school didn’t meet its enrollment goals — only that it would face a review if operating at less than 95 percent of projected enrollment under its budget.

As for the prospect of closure, the agreements don’t specify acceptable reasons for a charter operator to terminate its contract. Should that happen, the contracts say merely that the ASD has the authority to step in and conduct the school’s business and affairs.

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.

The gaps in ASD’s charter agreements show how the state-run district was helpless to prevent Gestalt and KIPP from announcing last fall that they would back out of their contracts at the end of this school year. They also highlight the gaps in understanding by all parties of how the decreasing student population in Memphis would affect the ASD’s work. It’s expensive to turn around schools or open a new one in an area losing school-age students as impoverished families vacate; running them requires enough students and funding to provide necessary supports.

Katie Jones, a Memphis charter school principal and a former charter evaluator for the ASD, said none of this should have come as a surprise, though. She said the ASD should have been clear about expectations.

“There should be stipulations that say reasons why you can not pull out of a school… and under enrollment is one of them,” Jones wrote on Facebook.

But including early-exit penalties can have unintended consequences, said William Haft, a vice president with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has worked with both the ASD and Shelby County Schools to improve charter oversight.

“If they’re walking away, if they’re withdrawing from this commitment, then they’ve probably got a good reason to doing it,” Haft said. “Do you then want to try and force them (to stay open)? … I would want to be careful about setting up that situation.”

Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, said adding penalties for closures could deter charter operators from taking on an already risky and challenging task to turn around schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. It also would discourage operators from making a good-faith effort to stay open, as Gestalt did at first by running a deficit, he said.

“It would be insensitive for us to ignore what they’ve been dealing with to the detriment of their finances,” White said, adding the ASD plans to scrutinize enrollment projections more closely. “We have to be sensitive to the realities that shaped operators not being able to sustain the work.”

Still, there’s more at stake with turnaround districts like the ASD, said Morris, a Klondike alumna who is now executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

Most charter schools are new starts, but the bulk of the ASD’s charters are in existing schools that have struggled for years. In wresting control of them from their local district, the ASD and its operators promised to bring innovation and breathe new life into those schools and neighborhoods.

“They made promises that they didn’t keep,” Morris said, “and they disrupted our educational pattern.”

Achievement School District

The enrollment problems that plagued ASD schools in turmoil? They’re not unique.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby Middle School's band performs during the Memphis charter school's opening ceremony last fall. Kirby, which is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, is one of 17 schools in Tennessee's Achievement School District with enrollment under 70 percent.

When leaders of Gestalt announced they were backing out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district, they pinned the decision on low enrollment — and some charter operators were quick to paint the problem as unique.

Then KIPP told the same story a month later when it announced plans to exit University Middle, another Memphis school in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014,” KIPP leaders said in a statement last December.

But the two charter operators hardly faced unusual enrollment pressure. A Chalkbeat analysis found half of the ASD’s 33 schools have faced deep enrollment challenges.

Seventeen schools — 15 in Memphis and two in Nashville — enroll fewer than 70 percent of the students they were designed to serve. Fifteen of the ASD’s 25 takeovers also have fewer students today than when they were controlled by the local district.

The findings suggest that overhauling struggling schools by giving them new management, the ASD’s high-stakes turnaround strategy, does little to counteract local demographic pressure. Across much of Memphis, home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, the school-age population has been falling for years.

“The cloud over the work in Memphis is there are too many buildings for the number of students,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. He noted that Shelby County Schools faces similar challenges.

But that realization was still in the future in 2011, when the ASD was laying the groundwork to take over its first low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators who promised to boost test scores dramatically.

At the time, the assumption was that improving a school would draw more neighborhood families to enroll. But that has happened in only about 40 percent of the ASD’s schools in Memphis. Most have seen their enrollment decline.

At Westside Achievement Middle School, for example, the number of students dropped from 535 to 339 after its takeover in 2012 as part of the ASD’s first portfolio of schools.

The trend was the same at Wooddale Middle, which has gone from 714 to 473 students in the two years that the school has been under management by Green Dot Public Schools.

The outlook was better at Memphis Scholars’ Florida-Kansas Elementary School, which has had a slight increase in enrollment since 2014, the last year of local governance by Shelby County Schools. Even so, the elementary school is operating at just 40 percent capacity.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents’ concerns in January at Gestalt’s Klondike Elementary, which will close this spring due to low enrollment.

ASD officials say they are paying closer attention to the school-age population in Memphis. They now plan to scrutinize enrollment projections when charter operators submit their budgets, with an eye toward census data and neighborhood housing trends. They also have a clear message for operators: “Don’t bank on a huge enrollment growth to sustain your model,” White said.

Charter operators are generally accustomed to recruiting students from across school zones. But in Tennessee, the challenges posed by demographic shifts have been exacerbated by strict enrollment rules for the ASD’s schools and turf battles with the local district.

State law limits to 25 percent the number of students who can come from outside their neighborhood to an ASD school. Until 2015, the schools weren’t allowed to admit any out-of-neighborhood students, while schools run by Shelby County Schools can accept students from anywhere in the district if they have extra space.

Allison Leslie, superintendent for Aspire Public Schools in Memphis, said her schools could attract more students if the state allowed them to.

“That is limiting for us, something I would like to see change,” she said about enrollment restrictions under state law. “Students and families in Memphis should be able to select whatever school they want to attend in Memphis. Currently it is really confusing for families based on the enrollment restrictions that exist for ASD schools specifically.”

ASD schools aren’t the only ones fighting for students. In the last five years, Shelby County Schools has closed 20 under-enrolled schools, and the district plans to shutter more in the near future. Low enrollment is spottier in Nashville, where the city’s population is booming.

Shelby County Schools hasn’t taken the ASD’s expansion in Memphis lying down. In recent years, the local district has aggressively recruited and rezoned to stem the tide of students and funding moving to the state-run district. In the most high-profile case, an entire school was reconfigured to retain students bound for the ASD. Charter operators, including Gestalt, also have complained that the local district withheld student information, hampering their efforts to sign kids up.

“I think what ASD operators have faced is being the new kids on the block in their mission to serve those neighborhood schools,” White said. “They have essentially had to build out from scratch in terms of communication with students and building community partnerships that assist in family and student outreach.”

Enrollment challenges in Memphis shouldn’t have been a surprise to charter operators, according to Dirk Tillotson, founder of Great School Choices, which supports community-based charter school development.

“That is something that is fairly predictable,” said Tillotson, who is based in Oakland, Calif., another urban school district with declining enrollment. “You’ve got to be financially sustainable in this work. If you don’t get that basic step down, you won’t be able to serve your kids.”

Below are two tables detailing enrollment at the ASD’s 33 schools. The first compares each school’s 2016-17 enrollment to its “programmatic capacity,” or the number of students that academic programs were designed to serve.

The second table compares enrollment this year to enrollment before their ASD takeover. Schools that were not takeovers but started from scratch are noted as “new starts.”

ASD enrollment and capacity

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CAPACITY
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 30.7%
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 32.2%
Wooddale Middle 473 39.7%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 39.9%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 39.9%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 41.2%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 43.2%
Brick Church College Prep 338 48.3%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 50.9%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 52.5%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 53.9%
Fairley High 565 55.4%
Hillcrest High 483 55.5%
Kirby Middle 407 58.2%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 59.8%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 59.9%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 66.5%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 72.5%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 73.7%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 75.7%
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 84.4%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 92.6%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 94.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 95.3%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 95.8%
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 100.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 111.2%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 113.4%
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 115.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 151%

Change in ASD enrollment since takeover

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt 205 -59.5%
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 -53%
Westside Achievement Middle 339 -36.6%
Wooddale Middle 473 -33.8%
Promise Academy-Spring Hill 281 -33.6%
Libertas School at Brookmeade** 220 -30.4%
Frayser Achievement Elementary 296 -30.2%
Corning Achievement Elementary 224 -27.5%
Kirby Middle 407 -26.7%
Fairley High 565 -18.8%
Klondike Preparatory Academy 196 -15.9%
Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary 447 -13.4%
Brick Church College Prep 338 -10.8%
Whitney Achievement Elementary 376 -8.7%
Hillcrest High 483 -8.2%
Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary 271 1.9%
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 3.4%
Humes Preparatory Academy 315 7.9%
Aspire Coleman Elementary 548 10.3%
Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High 625 13.6%
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary 324 17.4%
Cornerstone Prep Lester campus* 756 21.5%
Aspire Hanley campus* 820 32.7%
Freedom Prepatory Academy Charter Elementary 567 59.7%
KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary 448 78.5%
KIPP Memphis University Middle 147 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Whitehaven 183 new start
Pathways in Education-Memphis in Frayser 234 new start
KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary/Middle* 611 new start
GRAD Academy Memphis 536 new start

*Three campuses within the ASD house two schools. For purposes of these tables, their enrollment figures are combined.

** Libertas is still phasing in grades at the elementary school. Currently, the school serves preK-2nd grade.