it's official

State-run Memphis school definitely will close, says Achievement School District

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson listens to parents' concerns during a January meeting at Klondike Elementary, which will close this year due to low enrollment.

After coming up empty-handed in the search for a new operator, Tennessee’s turnaround district will close its first school at the end of this school year, leaders announced Monday night.

Officials with the Achievement School District previously had said that Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary might close this year, but made it official during a meeting with about 60 Klondike parents, teachers and stakeholders.

The students will be reassigned to Vollentine Elementary, which is less than a mile away and operated by Shelby County Schools. The state took over Klondike from the local district in 2012 due to low performance.

“The reality is this: Our babies deserve to go to a close-by school and stay in the neighborhood,” ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson told the crowd. “They deserve to go to higher-performing school,” she added, noting that she worked with SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to find a higher-performing school for Klondike’s students.

The impending closure is a blow to the state-run district, which has taken over 24 low-performing schools in Memphis since the state legislature created the ASD in 2010 as a mechanism to turn those schools around. The ASD now faces the closure this spring of up to three schools after two of its charter networks announced plans last fall to pull out or scale back their work with the state district.

KIPP Memphis, which is part of a national network, announced in December that it also will pull out of one of its four ASD schools, while Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools plans to exit both of its ASD schools. Both operators cited under-enrollment. ASD leaders have not announced a final decision about the future of KIPP’s Memphis University Middle School, while Memphis-based Frayser Community Schools has applied to operate Gestalt’s Humes Preparatory Academy Middle.

The state-run district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools has been mostly combative in recent years as the ASD has steadily expanded and siphoned off both students and funding from the local district. But Anderson told parents Monday that the ASD is collaborating with SCS leaders to support Klondike students in the transition ahead, and that the local district will provide bus transportation to Vollentine.

Shelby County Schools, which also has struggled with under-enrollment, now stands to gain students in the transition. Vollentine currently has 258 students and Klondike has 194. Both buildings are designed for more than 500 students.

“There are too many schools for the number of students we have in this county,” Anderson said in response to questions about recent school closures in North Memphis. “What we can do is not be surprised about it. What we can do is make sure we plan for the future. … That’s exactly what the ASD and SCS are engaged in.”

To give parents a choice, the ASD worked with the Memphis School Guide to provide families with a list of up to 13 SCS and ASD schools available to attend. Anderson said Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that promotes school choice, is available to provide one-on-one counseling for families needing help.

ASD leaders fielded questions from the crowd about the process for deciding to close the school.

“Why weren’t families engaged more?” asked Klondike Principal Jennifer Islom. “We had an initial meeting, and parents got emails sent to them, but no other committee was created.”

Anderson said seven current ASD operators, including the ASD’s own network, were eligible to apply, but none did.

“We did our due diligence in looking at the finances and honestly we could not make it work,” she said of the decision by the ASD’s Achievement Schools not to apply. “We couldn’t provide a breadth of services here with the number of students available. Instead of providing a subpar experience, we will work with SCS, and find out how we combine these communities.”

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

turnaround titan

Former Memphis principal will lead iZone, turnaround work for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Memphis Daily News
Former Memphis principal Antonio Burt, shown here with kindergarten teacher Britney Batson, helped lead Ford Road Elementary School to double-digit proficiency growth in 2013. Burt has returned to Memphis as assistant superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

A former turnaround principal is returning to Memphis as an assistant superintendent overseeing the Innovation Zone and other school turnaround work for Shelby County Schools, a spokeswoman confirmed Monday.

Antonio Burt started his new job last week under Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, for whom he worked previously as a principal in the iZone that she supervised. He’ll take the helm of the nationally known turnaround program and also provide oversight for the district’s other schools performing in the state’s bottom 5 percent. Those include some schools receiving new resources this year under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s new plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin has been chief of schools since her promotion from regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone.

The appointment is the first big hire under Griffin, who was promoted in January to supervise and support all of the district’s principals and teachers. It also continues a reshuffling of top academic positions since Griffin’s promotion and the departure of academics chief Heidi Ramirez a month later.

The district has no plans to replace Ramirez at this time, said spokeswoman Natalia Powers.

Burt was an iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School until his departure in 2015 to work for the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that helps to recruit, train and place effective teachers in high-need districts. He came back to Memphis soon after to work for the state-run Achievement School District, though only for six months, according to his Linkedin page.

For the last year and a half, Burt was director of school transformation at Florida’s Pinellas County Schools, whose low-performing schools were analyzed in the Tampa Bay Times’ award-winning series Failure Factories. He had been hired to lead a new “transformation zone” which, similar to the iZone model, provides extra resources to struggling schools.

Burt began his education career in 2003 with the former Memphis City Schools and in 2012 took the helm at Ford Road, where he gained national attention for his turnaround work and became a champion of principal autonomy.

“We are very excited have have Dr. Burt back in our district serving our highest-need schools,” a district spokeswoman said. “We know that with his proven track record in school turnaround, we will continue to move toward our goal of providing high-quality school options for every child.”