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.”

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.