ASD Reset

Tennessee’s Achievement School District would return to its original purpose under a bill that its leaders support

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks in October to Memphis parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose one charter operator and get a new one at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district could soon get its wings clipped — and its leaders are among those calling for the changes.

Right now, the Achievement School District can both overhaul low-performing schools and start new schools. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the district from starting new schools and make it harder for the district to take over struggling schools.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The hope is that, with extra support, local districts will improve schools without the Achievement School District interceding.

Taken together, the two proposals would curtail the district’s ability to grow at a time when it already is closing schools. In recent months, two charter operators have backed out of schools within the district, pointing to a shrinking presence for the ASD regardless of whether the state changes its approach to school turnaround.

The bill’s wide support suggests that the aggressive approach originally taken by the ASD is falling out of favor.

State education officials say the proposed changes are meant to restore the state-run district to the purpose it was intended in 2010, when lawmakers created the ASD to take over schools that were so far gone that their districts couldn’t — or wouldn’t — improve them.

Read more about how the State Department of Education wants to change its approach to school turnaround work.

Starting in 2011, though, some charter operators tapped by the district were given the option to open new schools too.

Four operators used that option, and so far they have launched five new ASD schools. A sixth, from the national network Rocketship, is slated to open in Nashville this fall. It would be the ASD’s last new school if Hawk’s bill passes and the district’s work is limited to turnaround.

“That is the purpose of the work we’re doing; it is the purpose of the ASD,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “We need to clarify, so there’s no confusion.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rocketship’s new school will share space with a North Nashville church when it opens this fall. The school might be the ASD’s last new school start.

ASD officials say the new rules are necessary in part because of Memphis’s declining student enrollment — which is putting pressure on all local schools.

“We already have far too many school buildings for the number of students we have,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. “New starts have to come off the table, and we have to be comfortable with that.”

The bill came out of the State Education Department’s plan to comply with the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. A state spokeswoman confirmed that ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson helped to draft the school improvement part of the plan, including the language around the district she runs.

“We’re refining our focus,” White explained. “It is at some level informed by feedback and our own learning.”

The ASD underwent scrutiny last summer by lawmakers who had questions about the ASD’s purpose, effectiveness and end game. With the endorsement of state officials, the bill reining in the district is likely to become law. In that case, the ASD will have to revise its agreements with charter operators who have been told since 2011 that they can open new schools.

Such changes run the risk of shaking operators’ commitment to the state-run district at a time when two operators already have pulled the plug on one or more of their ASD schools. They also could potentially dissuade other charter operators from choosing to work in Tennessee.

Turnaround work is considered far more challenging than starting new charter schools. School leaders have a harder time establishing a school culture and also inherit challenges that led to the school’s low performance in the first place.

But White said all of the operators are aware of the possible changes. “We’ve not really had pushback,” he said.

McQueen said operators who are committed to the district’s mission shouldn’t be deterred.

“Our intention is to attract the operators who want to come in and … take schools that are in a community, take them with all grade levels at one time, and do this school turnaround work,” she said.

iZone expansion

Raleigh-Egypt would join Memphis Innovation Zone under Hopson budget

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Raleigh-Egypt High School Principal Bo Griffin talks with students in the school’s hallways in 2016.

Shelby County’s high-profile school turnaround program, which is also one of its more expensive initiatives, would grow this fall by two more schools under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s proposed budget.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School emerged this week as a second school planned for the Innovation Zone. The superintendent already had tagged Sheffield Elementary to enter the transformation model.

If Hopson’s budget passes, the iZone would grow to 23 schools — all of which seek to significantly increase student scores through intense interventions such as extending the school day by one hour.

The annual cost to have both schools in the iZone is $1.4 million, which is higher than the usual $600,000-per-school price tag. That’s because of Raleigh-Egypt’s expanded grades and Sheffield’s higher-than-average population of English learners, said Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin.

“We’re in a unique position this year because of the additional funds,” Griffin said of the district’s balanced budget. “And we want to make sure we’re supporting schools, not just when they get totally critical like what has been the history of iZone schools ready for takeover, but to put some supports in place to support them before they are extremely critical.”

The proposed expansion would be the iZone’s first in the Raleigh and Parkway Village communities of Memphis.

Griffin said American Way Middle and Sheffield High are likely iZone candidates for the following year to complete Sheffield Elementary’s feeder pattern.

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.

Raleigh-Egypt has been under a microscope since 2012 when the high school made the state’s “priority school” list of its 5 percent lowest-performing schools. In 2015, the school almost was taken over by the state-run Achievement School District but was spared at the 11th hour when academic growth exceeded expectations.

This school year, Shelby County leaders reconfigured the high school to include middle school grades after the ASD took control of nearby Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and assigned it to a charter operator. That maneuver allowed the local district to retain more than half of the middle school students and funding that it would have lost to the state-run district.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School has about 900 students.

Sharon Griffin said no decision has been made about whether to retain Principal Bo Griffin, who has led Raleigh-Egypt High’s academic growth since 2014, in its transition to the iZone.

Raleigh-Egypt Middle School was briefly considered as a candidate for the iZone last year as leaders of the local and state-run districts tried to avoid having two middle schools on the same campus. But the idea was abandoned.

school improvement

Tennessee reveals quicker exit plan for schools in the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson presents an update on the school turnaround district to the State Board of Education.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson gets the same question over and over: How can a school get out of Tennessee’s turnaround district, which the state created in 2010 to fix low-performing schools?

Now, for the first time, she has some concrete answers.

A school will return to its local district if it improves and stays off of two consecutive “priority lists” of the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

But a school also will be released if it continues to struggle under the ASD and makes the priority list two more times.

The maximum a school can stay in the state-run district is 10 years.

“Our commitment is high and true to the schools that we serve,” Anderson told the State Board of Education Thursday in Nashville. “The role of the ASD is to intervene swiftly in the lowest-performing schools in the state, improve them and return them to local oversight.”

The details are significant because they allow schools to return to their local districts sooner and more easily than previously outlined by the state.

The changes are part of Tennessee’s new school improvement plan in response to a new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The revised approach also gives districts more time before their schools can be taken over by the state — and more input into how and when that happens.

“We are really moving from what we call a ‘start-up phase’ of the Achievement School District to a more sustainable phase,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, adding that the ASD remains the state’s “most rigorous intervention.”

When district leaders in Memphis asked for clarity on an exit plan last year, it appeared that schools could remain in the ASD in perpetuity, returning only if they sustained improvement for at least nine years. Memphis is home to all but two of the state-run district’s 33 schools, many of which have lagged behind schools in Shelby County’s own turnaround program.

Anderson told the State Board that the state-run district has been an important player in Tennessee’s school improvement strategy, and has pushed local districts to do more for their lowest-performing schools than ever before.

“The catalytic effect of the ASD is real,” she said.