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.

Overlapping

One campus, two districts: Memphis Raleigh-Egypt navigates enrollment standoff

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.

As the morning bell approaches, students file into Raleigh-Egypt High School, which last fall began accepting middle schoolers too. About 45 minutes later, the same drill happens just yards away at neighboring Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt, a middle school operated by a charter network.

The Memphis campus is unique, serving two schools — and two districts. Raleigh-Egypt High is operated by Shelby County Schools. The middle school is run by Memphis Scholars through the state-run Achievement School District.

Both are low-performing schools. But the goal lately hasn’t been just about improving academics. Neighborhoods that feed the schools have turned into a battlefield for student enrollment in the city’s Raleigh community.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new sign for Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt is hung near the faded letters of the school’s former middle school name under Shelby County Schools.

Memphis Scholars, which previously was part of national charter network Scholar Academies, reopened the former Raleigh-Egypt Middle School in August with the goal of turning it around following a state takeover from Shelby County Schools. But in an unprecedented move to retain students and funding, the local school board voted last spring to reconfigure the neighboring high school to include middle school grades.

The decisions set the stage for a battle to recruit middle schoolers to both schools. At Raleigh-Egypt High, Principal James “Bo” Griffin and his team took to the streets by talking about the transition to civic groups, neighborhood pastors and elected officials. At the middle school, Memphis Scholars and the Memphis Lift school choice advocacy group hosted parent meetings and invited families to talk with administrators about the changes.

So far, the middle school is losing the enrollment battle. Memphis Scholars had expected to have 500 students at opening, but has only 200. Raleigh-Egypt High, meanwhile, registered 280 middle schoolers, increasing the school’s total enrollment to 900 in a building meant for some 1,250 students.

As a result, the charter operator’s turnaround challenge also has become an enrollment challenge — one being experienced by many of the ASD’s 13 operators. More than half of the state district’s buildings operate at 50 percent capacity or less.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools’ aggressive strategy appears to be working. The local district managed this year to keep some students from moving to the ASD, which has expanded annually since 2012 at the expense of the local district.

Parents are also getting more public school choices for their children.

But nobody seems to be particularly happy about the setup.

“The people who are losing are these kids,” said Griffin at Raleigh-Egypt High. “We all have good ideas but we all need to be on the same page.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Jerry Sanders, director for Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt, talk about the charter school’s academic offerings.

Jerry Sanders, who came aboard last year as middle school’s principal, is trying to keep his team focused. “I’m more concerned with the academics they’re receiving rather than who’s giving it to them,” said Sanders, a former Memphis City Schools teacher and instructional leader with KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School.

The unique arrangement has tested both districts.

When enrollment is down, it’s harder to fund the level of supports needed to turn around a school. Under-enrollment has been cited as the reason for impending pullouts of three ASD schools this year by two charter operators, Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP.

But Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson said Tuesday that his organization has no plans leave the Raleigh middle school, even with the drop in enrollment.

“We were proactive in the way we forecast our enrollment,” Patterson said of projections made by Memphis Scholars after Shelby County Schools announced the high school’s reconfigured grades. “Doesn’t mean we’re content with that.”

Shelby County Schools, meanwhile, received a stern lecture from state officials for its chess move last spring.

“We are certainly disappointed in the implied reason behind the possible grade configuration change in the Raleigh-Egypt schools,” said a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education. “(Local districts) may, of course, expand school options for students, but considering a reconfiguration in an attempt to divert students from an ASD school is contrary to the intent of state school turnaround policy.”

For two districts to share a campus is not unprecedented in Memphis. Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter network with schools authorized by both Shelby County Schools and the ASD, has one of each at its Westwood campus. But in that case, the schools are under the same operator.

At Raleigh-Egypt, things get a bit trickier with two operators. The campus has its auditorium in the middle school. And the two schools also must share sports fields between them.

Both principals agree that the relationship has been cordial, though.

“We’re able to communicate to get what the kids need,” Sanders said.

Pass

The ASD once said it could save these two Memphis schools. Why is its own operator now walking away?

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Tim Ware, who leads the state-run Achievement Schools in Memphis, talks with Whitney Achievement Elementary School Principal Debra Broughton during a 2015 meeting.

After a charter operator abruptly announced plans to pull out of running two Memphis schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, leaders of the state-run turnaround initiative faced a wrenching decision.

Should they run the schools directly, using their own management group, Achievement Schools? After all, Achievement Schools already is running five similar schools nearby, and the ASD was designed to improve schools in crisis.

Or should they join other ASD charter operators in declining to rescue Klondike Preparatory Elementary and Humes Preparatory Middle schools?

After crunching the numbers, they went with the second option. A different operator has applied to step in at Humes at the end of this school year, but Klondike will become the first school in the ASD to close.

The impending closure raises questions about why the state entity that promised to catapult struggling schools to excellence is instead letting at least one die. The answers lie largely in a persistent complaint among nonprofit charter operators running ASD schools in Memphis: There simply aren’t enough students to go around.

“We did our due diligence in looking at the finances and honestly we could not make it work,” ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson told Klondike parents last week. “We couldn’t provide a breadth of services here with the number of students available.”

Klondike has 135 students, even though it can enroll up to 750. At Humes, just 315 students attend class in a building designed for 900. A combination of strict rules that limit student recruitment and a dwindling school-age population have left the schools struggling to attract students — damaging not only their mission, but also their chief source of funding.

To operate both schools, Achievement Schools Executive Director Tim Ware said balancing the budget would require slashing teacher training, after-school instruction, and programs to help poor students.

“When you strip education down to those bare bones, there’s real questions about the value of that education,” Ware said. “It costs extra money to take a school that’s challenged to create the necessary supports to turn it around.”

Officials in Shelby County Schools, the local district that previously ran the schools, already had drawn the same conclusion. The district has been pouring millions of federal and philanthropic dollars into 21 struggling schools through a turnaround initiative known as the Innovation Zone, allowing them to add extra services for students and training for teachers.

The local district also has about 22,000 more seats than students, and it recently kicked off a process to bring those two numbers in line by closing and consolidating schools.

The dynamic is not unique to Memphis, according to Ethan Gray, whose nonprofit, Education Cities, helps cities plan for the future. He said charter operators like KIPP, which is pulling out of another ASD school this spring, are learning that success in some cities might not easily be replicated in others.

“There are a number of cities that are facing declining enrollment issues where the economics of opening and running schools is really, really hard,” Gray said.

“The reality for a lot of [charter operators] that are being recruited by cities is that the conditions have to be favorable for them to set up shop and run schools that are effective economically and academically,” he added.

In Memphis, where the ASD operates 31 schools, it doesn’t appear that those conditions are in place. That raises another question about the state entity: Shouldn’t it have seen these demographic challenges coming?

Some local officials say yes — and that Tennessee shouldn’t have made the bold school-improvement promises it did without solutions.

“This goes back to the heart of the original problem. Dwindling enrollment, small schools,” said David Reaves, a former school board member who now sits on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and has long been critical of the ASD. “The state thought the best thing was to bring in a charter operator to grow the school. But the reality is the school population isn’t there.”