Sobering results

TNReady scores are down across the state, but they’re especially down in Memphis

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Tennessee education leaders have warned for more than a year that scores would drop statewide under a new test, which they did, but the scores especially dropped in Memphis.

That goes for both Tennessee’s largest school district and its state-run turnaround district.

Shelby County Schools lagged considerably behind the rest of the state on new high school TNReady results released Tuesday for districts and individual schools. Only 6.8 percent of its high school students scored on or above grade-level in Algebra I in 2015-16, compared to almost 21 percent statewide. The combined passing rate for English exams was almost 11 percent lower than the state’s, and it was 13 percent lower for all math exams.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results “sobering.”

“On one hand, we expected to see a decrease across the board with the introduction of a new test and far more rigorous standards, along with the change in test format and abrupt shifts in our assessment calendar,” he said in a statement. “Though the results are limited, there is no question that we have to work harder in order to help students learn and grow at the pace needed to be on track for graduation and ready for college and careers.”

State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen reiterated Tuesday that educators shouldn’t be discouraged by the scores. “These scores show a student’s potential trajectory,” she said. “They are not a student’s destiny.”

Tennessee has planted its flag in Memphis in an effort to improve chronically low-performing schools through a collaboration of federal, state, local and philanthropic investments. The latest scores, which McQueen says “sets a new baseline” through more rigorous expectations, show just how far the state’s biggest district has to go to reach proficiency in 12 subjects.

“This is very hard work for teachers and school leaders, but ultimately it’s hardest on our students,” Hopson said of his district, which works with a large population of impoverished students. “We simply have to be better to help our students be successful.”

The TNReady scores are only for high school students because Tennessee canceled its tests for lower grades due to the bumpy transition to a new test. The results in Memphis mirror statewide scores released last month showing that the vast majority of Tennessee’s high school students are not prepared for college, as well as district-level scores showing that urban school systems scored below state averages.

Shelby County Schools saw the highest passing rates on science exams, peaking with 34.5 percent on biology. But that’s because Tennessee’s science tests won’t be updated until new science standards are phased in during the 2018-19 school year. Even in end-of-course science tests, Shelby County students lagged about 20 percentage points behind the state.

A bright spot was growth in literacy. Under Tennessee’s complex growth formula, Shelby County Schools earned the highest mark for literacy growth, though its overall growth score was low.

“It shows us we’re working on the right stuff, and we also saw gains in social studies, which relies heavily on literacy as a subject,” said Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez, noting the district’s comprehensive plan to improve reading scores.

Ramirez added that a similar initiative is in the works to improve math, focusing initially on deeper support for math teachers. “It takes time, but we hope we can move even faster on the math side. That’s an area where content knowledge can be a real challenge for our teachers and leaders,” she said.

McQueen said many districts struggled with growth in math because the test was so different. For the first time, calculators were prohibited for some questions.

“The depth of what the expectation was in terms of problem solving … was very different,” she said. “When you take (the calculator) away, that’s going to be a real adjustment, a real change.”

Achievement School District

Memphis also is the hub for the Achievement School District, the state’s turnaround district, which last spring included three high schools: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory, Fairley and GRAD Academy.

Almost all of the ASD’s high school students failed the state’s new math exams. English tests did not fare much better, with an average of 8 percent passing them.

Still, the state-run district earned high marks for growth in literacy, suggesting that its students made some progress compared to struggling peers across the state.

Achieving a high literacy growth is significant, according to one charter network operator recruited by the ASD to implement a turnaround plan at MLK Prep.

“After the baseline year, people start to understand the rigor. … Teachers start to catch up.  That’s where we are once again,” said Bobby White, CEO of Frayser Community Schools.

“What (a growth score) tells us is what we’re doing in literacy is working,” he said. “We have a whole lot of more work to do, but the plans we have in place are moving the needle in the direction we want them to.”

The state’s test scores were released months later than usual due to the transition to a new test, but they’ll still be helpful for teachers, said Tamala Boyd Shaw, executive director of Project GRAD Academy.

“(TNReady scores) determine how we recruit and support our teachers. If we see that we scored low in particular subjects, we have to ask ourselves how we are selecting and supporting those teachers,” Shaw said. “We’ll look at the resources we’re using in those classrooms. Were we tracking data throughout the school? What kinds of assessments were our teachers giving? And how did all of that match up?”

You can view the state’s newly redesigned report card here and read Chalkbeat’s guide to understanding this year’s TNReady scores here.

Statehouse reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from leaders of Shelby County Schools.

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.”