The Fine Print

Why charter operators exiting Tennessee’s turnaround district can walk away

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Each of the state-run Achievement School District charter operators have an agreement that allows them to close for any reason.

When two charter school operators announced plans to leave Tennessee’s turnaround district this spring, many people were surprised that they could break their 10-year agreements.

“How could any charter management company come into a community and up and decide we’re not going to play anymore?” asked Quincey Morris, a lifelong resident of North Memphis, home to two schools that abruptly lost their charter operator.

But in Memphis and across the nation, there’s nothing to stop charter operators from leaving, even when they promise to be there for a long time.

Contracts signed by both Gestalt Community Schools and KIPP contain no penalties for exiting the Achievement School District before agreements run out, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

And by design, that’s not unusual in the charter sector. For better or worse, operators are given that autonomy, according to Dirk Tillotson, a lawyer and founder of a charter incubation organization in California.

“There hasn’t been much attention paid to closures in the law,” Tillotson said of charter laws nationwide. “The laws are more forward-looking than backward-looking when things might blow up.”

That lack of clarity has suddenly started to matter a lot in Memphis, where charter schools are struggling to attract enough students to stay viable. Both KIPP and Gestalt blame their impending pullouts on under-enrollment — a challenge faced by more than half of the 31 Memphis schools operated by the ASD.

But having enough students wasn’t the focus when the ASD began taking over low-performing schools in 2012 and recruiting charter operators to turn them around. The assumption was that charter schools would have too many students and not enough seats, especially if those schools were under new management.

And their contracts reflected that line of thinking. The paperwork detailed how enrollment lotteries should be conducted if space remained after locally zoned students had registered. There was no guidance on what should happen if a school didn’t meet its enrollment goals — only that it would face a review if operating at less than 95 percent of projected enrollment under its budget.

As for the prospect of closure, the agreements don’t specify acceptable reasons for a charter operator to terminate its contract. Should that happen, the contracts say merely that the ASD has the authority to step in and conduct the school’s business and affairs.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

The gaps in ASD’s charter agreements show how the state-run district was helpless to prevent Gestalt and KIPP from announcing last fall that they would back out of their contracts at the end of this school year. They also highlight the gaps in understanding by all parties of how the decreasing student population in Memphis would affect the ASD’s work. It’s expensive to turn around schools or open a new one in an area losing school-age students as impoverished families vacate; running them requires enough students and funding to provide necessary supports.

Katie Jones, a Memphis charter school principal and a former charter evaluator for the ASD, said none of this should have come as a surprise, though. She said the ASD should have been clear about expectations.

“There should be stipulations that say reasons why you can not pull out of a school… and under enrollment is one of them,” Jones wrote on Facebook.

But including early-exit penalties can have unintended consequences, said William Haft, a vice president with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which has worked with both the ASD and Shelby County Schools to improve charter oversight.

“If they’re walking away, if they’re withdrawing from this commitment, then they’ve probably got a good reason to doing it,” Haft said. “Do you then want to try and force them (to stay open)? … I would want to be careful about setting up that situation.”

Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, said adding penalties for closures could deter charter operators from taking on an already risky and challenging task to turn around schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent. It also would discourage operators from making a good-faith effort to stay open, as Gestalt did at first by running a deficit, he said.

“It would be insensitive for us to ignore what they’ve been dealing with to the detriment of their finances,” White said, adding the ASD plans to scrutinize enrollment projections more closely. “We have to be sensitive to the realities that shaped operators not being able to sustain the work.”

Still, there’s more at stake with turnaround districts like the ASD, said Morris, a Klondike alumna who is now executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

Most charter schools are new starts, but the bulk of the ASD’s charters are in existing schools that have struggled for years. In wresting control of them from their local district, the ASD and its operators promised to bring innovation and breathe new life into those schools and neighborhoods.

“They made promises that they didn’t keep,” Morris said, “and they disrupted our educational pattern.”

Movers & shakers

Why the new director of KIPP Memphis calls the city’s charter landscape ‘beautiful and elegant’

PHOTO: KIPP
Kendra Ferguson became executive director of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools in February, after spending most of her career with KIPP Bay Area Schools in California.

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools is welcoming its third leader in three years, and at a time when the seven-school charter network could use a boost.

Kendra Ferguson became executive director in December, after spending most of her career with KIPP, and most recently KIPP Bay Area Schools in California. She replaces Kelly Wright, who had the job for two years.

With a presence in Memphis since 2002, KIPP now operates four charter schools through Shelby County Schools and three under the state-run Achievement School District.

Ferguson took the helm at an especially challenging time. The nonprofit network was preparing to close its first Memphis school due to low enrollment. And its student achievement is also under a microscope. While KIPP schools fared generally well nationwide in a new high-profile study out of Stanford University, its Memphis schools did not. KIPP Memphis was among only two KIPP networks that appeared to have negative academic growth.

Ferguson sat down recently with Chalkbeat to talk about the challenges, with an eye toward bolstering academics and student retention. This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity.

The latest study from CREDO, a Stanford-based research group, shows negative results in math and reading for KIPP Memphis students. What are your immediate and long-term plans to raise the academic bar?

The CREDO study cites data from 2014-15. KIPP Memphis has already begun making adjustments to better support our schools. For example, we shifted to Common Core-aligned curriculum (Wheatley and Eureka) and continue to provide training and support across our schools. At one school, we moved to a co-leader model to provide additional leadership support. With my background in academics, I’m excited to focus our team’s time this year on teaching and learning, which is our top priority. Our intensive professional development work this summer will tap into instructional coaching support from the KIPP School Leadership Programs. We are also excited to have a director of teaching and learning to lead work throughout the year. We are optimistic about what’s ahead.

You’ve been with KIPP since 2002. Tell us about your most recent role, and why you’re coming to Memphis.

I was the chief of schools for KIPP Bay Area Schools and then most recently the chief people officer, where I focused on all areas of talent: development, recruitment, leadership pipeline, determining excellence in teachers — whatever helps you grow in your craft. I’m bringing all of that experience with me as I think about our teacher development and pipelines here.

Knowing that supporting new to KIPP teachers so that students hit the ground running, we developed a new teacher onboarding that included specific teacher moves and best practices in socio-emotional learning.

I’ve been a KIPPster forever, and I’ve worked before with several KIPPsters in Memphis through the KIPP network training and partnership across regions. I came for a visit and loved the city. It’s unique to see so many agencies around education. Instead of me chasing people to say, “Will you care about education?” there’s so many people already caring here. There’s Memphis Teacher Residency, anything under the Memphis Education Fund umbrella, TFA, City Year … everyone’s trying to be in a coalition together because of the need and love for the city.

What are your immediate priorities?

Academic attainment. It’s hard to get a good picture of where we are with the state test malfunction last year. But even looking at some of the scores in our K-12 grades, there’s work to be done.

We have a 100 percent graduation rate, but that’s not where it ends. Last year, 83 percent of our students went on to a two- or four-year college. Our estimated college completion rate is at about 42 percent. …That’s more (than the local school district), but not enough. (For comparison, Shelby County Schools has a 79 percent graduation rate and a 63 college matriculation rate during the 2015-16 year).

We’re also relatively new to the elementary school arena, so I’m looking there to what we can do to be stronger.

Another piece I’m thinking about is: What does it mean to be a KIPPster? What’s our brand, our identity? What do people see us as? We have a real opportunity here to define who we are. To me, what’s important and what I hope we’re known for is loving kids, learning our data and practicing excellence.

Maintaining or growing enrollment has been a challenge for many Memphis schools, and KIPP hasn’t been an exception. How are you addressing that?

At the end of each school year, we have folks spending more time looking at who’s a flight risk and why they’re thinking of leaving. Is there assistance we can provide? Is there a transportation issue? … What is it that’s causing folks to want to leave?

We’re also pushing re-enrollment as part of our end-of-year activities. We had a field day where parents had the opportunity to re-enroll. We had a Parents Summit, where we asked people to come in from the community — vendors like Memphis Lift, a local dance academy, camp options and health options. We also had principals there with information on enrollment and reenrollment. We’re being more aggressive.

I don’t actually know all the answers, but I’m looking to parents and teachers to help us fill the gaps. We do a parent survey at all KIPP schools at the end of the year, and I expect those to be helpful.

I’m also wondering about how the city is developing. When I first came, I heard a lot about apartments being demolished or renovated that could affect our kids. … (I wondered) are we connected with community leaders to better understand the urban planning that’s going on? Someone’s planning something to support our neighborhoods? I would love to be on front part of that.

Memphis parents are used to seeing educational leaders come and go. Given the turnover of KIPP’s leadership here, how will you build trust in the communities that KIPP is in?

Trust takes time to build when people don’t know you. I think the best thing I can do is just be me.

In our north Memphis community, I’ve definitely heard people asking, “Will she stay?” I understand that and know it’s not personal. That has nothing to do with Dr. Kendra Ferguson. It has to do with a history of people coming and going, coming and going. That’s the cycle, too, in other communities like New York or the Bay Area. But here, people want to know and be known. It’s much more familial. And for me, part of that trust-building is learning the city. In going to the Civil Rights Museum and thinking about all the history that’s occurred in Memphis, it’s important for me to know that history informs the city.

We’ve talked about students, but KIPP also has to retain teachers. Last year, 66 percent of teachers stayed within KIPP schools, compared to 73 percent nationally. What’s your plan there?

Excellence in teaching is the be all and end all. I really want to focus on teacher coaching. Every teacher wants to be observed. Everyone wants to be successful and get to the next level. This summer, our educational leaders will spend a week at an instructional bootcamp at the University of Chicago. They’ll be learning how to support and give teachers feedback.

I also think we need to define excellence in teaching. We can’t take for granted that people just know what it means to be a great teacher. There are measures out there that define excellence. I’m looking at Danielson or the New Teach Project rubric. It’s helpful to determine a way to measure our teachers so we’re all talking about the same thing. It’s also important for parents to understand what we’re talking about when we say this person is a great teacher.

Coming from the Bay Area, which is an innovation capital, you’ve got Google, Facebook and just about every startup you think. You can throw a stone and hit a startup. When I came here, I found a group coming together that wants to do things, that wants to innovate. Our teachers can benefit from this culture. How do they want to innovate in their classrooms? What ideas do they have? I want this to be an open environment where teachers can really pitch ideas.

KIPP Memphis has schools authorized by both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. How will you balance your work with two districts?

In the Bay Area, we had 11 schools under seven different authorizers. Here, I have seven schools under only two authorizers. To have just two authorizers, that seems absolutely beautiful and elegant, and much more of a plus than a minus.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences we have to think about with the Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools, For what I’ve experienced so far, the ASD provides more hands-on support, while Shelby County is more in a more traditional authorizer role.

I believe everyone here when they say that they want what’s best for students. I hear that when I talk to either Brad Leon with Shelby County Schools or Malika Anderson with the Achievement School District. It seems very consistent.

ASD Pivot

Tennessee’s turnaround district is reaching the end of an era

PHOTO: TN.gov
A teacher instructs students at Aspire Coleman Elementary School on May 12 as Gov. Bill Haslam and other officials visit the Memphis charter school operated under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

For five years, the Achievement School District has been the Tennessee Department of Education’s primary vehicle of school turnaround.

But that’s changing, bringing a dramatic era in Tennessee school reform to an end.

The state-run district hatched in the Race to the Top era when Tennessee won a $500 million pot of federal funds in 2010 by promising in part to improve its most struggling schools. To fulfill that promise, officials developed the Achievement School District, which takes over schools with the worst test scores and assigns them to new managers, usually charter operators, with the goal of vaulting them to the top within five years. By last fall, the district’s portfolio had swelled to 33 schools, mostly in Memphis.

But the model has achieved mixed results at best, while angering local stakeholders with each school takeover. Now, in the year that ASD founders set as a benchmark, a series of changes have whittled away the district’s influence.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the state will no longer default to the Achievement School District when considering how to help Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

“We’re in a dynamic environment. We’re learning about what works,” she said.

A new federal education law offered an opportunity to revamp school improvement strategies under McQueen, who became commissioner about three years after the ASD took control of its first schools.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

Tennessee’s pivot comes as other states acknowledge the limits of state-run turnaround districts. Michigan and Louisiana both began dissolving similar districts this year, even as Nevada and North Carolina have moved to create new ones.

“The fact that they seem to be rolling back (the ASD) in Tennessee, I think is a good sign. Hopefully these states will turn to strategies that are research-based, that actually improves what goes on in classrooms,” said Leigh Dingerson, an education consultant who has researched the model for the Southern Education Foundation and Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Tennessee’s new strategy doesn’t completely throw out the ASD. McQueen emphasizes that the district will remain the state’s most rigorous intervention. But with a long list of other schools in need of transformation, Tennessee will lean on more local district-led turnaround initiatives. A prime example is Shelby County Schools’ celebrated Innovation Zone in Memphis, which gives schools more autonomy over aspects like school day length and hiring, without converting them to charter schools.


Gov. Haslam says he’s committed to the ASD, even as the state downsizes its office


Tennessee also wants to launch a “partnership zone” model, in which a team of state and local district leaders will work together to oversee a cluster of five or more priority schools. That tool is being explored for five Chattanooga schools beginning in 2018.

McQueen says the state also won’t shy away from closing schools that are eligible for ASD takeover, but serve too few students. Enrollment has been a big challenge in Memphis, where the state-run district closed two of its charter schools last month after two operators determined that they didn’t have enough students to provide the necessary supports.

Malika Anderson became the ASD’s second superintendent in January 2016. (Photo by TN.gov)

“We have to think not only about what’s appropriate academically, but also do you have the financial ability for that particular plan to be successful based on enrollment or the potential for declining enrollment?” McQueen said. “Those are very particular characteristics we’ll have to think about as we discuss interventions.”

McQueen views all the changes as complementing the ASD’s work, not stymying it. “It gives us more opportunity for intervention in more ways that fits the needs of the schools and of the district,” she said.

The move to spread funding and resources across different turnaround techniques makes sense, says Ashley Jochim, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“It becomes very difficult to put all of your eggs in the turnaround district basket,” said Jochim, who has looked at state turnaround initiatives across the nation. “The reality is there are too many schools that need help for that option.”