Tennessee’s Achievement School District ranks high on “conditions for success”

Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District was the only entity in the country that received top marks in every category of a national education policy center’s ranking of “conditions for success” for one strategy for managing and improving school districts.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), at the University of Washington, coordinates a network of school districts nationally that are working to create “portfolio school districts.” It defines a portfolio district as one that is “creating more high-quality schools regardless of provider, giving schools autonomy over staff and funding, and holding all schools accountable for performance.”

The CRPE evaluated policies in place in 19 districts around the country to see how they lined up with its “best practices” for creating a portfolio school district. Those components are: Good options and choices for all families; school autonomy; pupil-based funding for all schools; talent-seeking strategy; sources of support for schools, performance-based accountability for schools; and extensive public engagement.

Here’s the CRPE’s evaluation sheet, which breaks down those components into smaller categories. (For example, “school autonomy” includes the following survey questions: “All schools control pay. All schools control budget. All schools control curriculum choice.”)

Tennessee’s state-run district was the only one of those 19 that was ranked as a “national exemplar” in every category. Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), a state-run district that runs many schools in New Orleans, was in second place, ranking as a national exemplar in every category except sources of support for schools and public engagement.

The ASD, which was created by Tennessee’s First to the Top law in 2010, was modeled after the RSD. It is currently running 16 schools: 15 in Memphis and one in Nashville. It plans to eventually be running as many as many as 50 schools, enrolling as many as 19,000 students, within the next 3 years.

The district’s goal is to take schools that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state and move them to the top 25 percent. Its strategy for doing so involves turning most over to charter management organizations that the state-run district will then oversee.

Metro Nashville Public Schools was also ranked in the CRPE’s list, but was not ranked so highly: It was ranked as “much work to be done” on student funding and support for schools, and as either “in progress” or “some elements in place” on every other category. 

The merged Shelby County School District was not ranked in this CRPE effort, but is in the network for 2013.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, wrote in a blog post about the ranking that “we’re taking this in stride as a piece of very helpful data and a nod to the kinds of ingredients we’ve put into the recipe…But if we’re unable to be a ‘national exemplar’ in a version of this with an 8th column—student results—this won’t matter much.”

“Now that we’re starting to create the right kind of context, what are we going to do with it?” he wrote.

The district is in its second year running schools. Its performance has been mixed so far.

For more on the history of the district, on some of its struggle to get community buy-in, and about the strategies it’s using in schools and to recruit teachers, you can check out this paper from the Fordham Institute in Washington, which suggests that the Achievement School District could be a model for other states looking to improve low-performing schools.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.