Achievement School District, SCS make plans for failing schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District

Officials with the state-run Achievement School District said they plan to open up to two brand-new schools and take over as many as nine additional historically low-performing schools next year. All but one of the new schools next year are slated to be in Memphis.

The ASD, a state effort to improve schools by dramatically overhauling their staff, programs, and governance, has grown quickly since it was created in 2011: It ran six schools in 2012-13, 17 schools in 2013-14, and is operating 22 schools, one in Nashville and 21 in Memphis, this year. Its enrollment has grown from 2,000 students in Memphis in its first year to approximately 6,500 students in the city this year.

Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said that the district met with ASD officials Thursday to discuss the expansion.

“We’ll have meaningful input into which schools they take and don’t take,” he said.

Hopson said the district would consider factors like feeder patterns—which elementary schools send students to which middle and high schools—and whether schools had new leaders or plans for improvement in place when making suggestions.

The schools taken over by the ASD in 2015-16 will be the first drawn from the newest state priority list, which uses three years of test scores and graduation rates to determine which low-performing schools should receive interventions.

All of the new ASD schools will be turned into charter schools, which hire their own staff and set their own schedules, curricula, and budget. (The ASD also directly runs five schools.) Schools’ attendance zones remain the same, but any student zoned to a bottom 5 percent school can enroll. New ASD charter schools can enroll any student zoned to a bottom 5 percent school.

Shelby County Schools will use the same priority list to determine which schools will join its Innovation Zone, a group of turnaround schools that remain in the district but are given new staff, resources, and longer school days. The district plans to add four schools next year and is also considering using charter schools to run those schools.

Hopson and ASD superintendent Chris Barbic have publicly emphasized what they refer to as “co-opetition” between the two districts.

Hopson said that “I wish we could ‘I-Zone’ more of our schools. But for schools we can’t get that intense treatment to, I feel better knowing that they’re getting something.”

A draft list of schools to be taken over by the ASD will likely be made public by early October. The final decision about which charter school will be “matched” with which priority list school will likely be determined by December, after a series of community meetings.

“We’re in the early stages,” said Margo Roen, the ASD’s New Schools Director. “We’re still analyzing data to figure out which schools will be on the final list.”

Roen said the October list will likely change over time, as the district will go through a process of meetings with communities and schools to determine which school is matched with which operator.

That process has been bumpy in previous years, as some schools’ staff and communities have protested the ASD’s plans to overhaul their schools. At South Side Middle and Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, for instance, school leaders presented ASD leaders with data showing that their schools were on an upward track already.

Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff, said that as the district plans for a new set of meetings, “smoothness does not equal greatness…it’s right for people to be skeptical, given the track record of systems in Memphis and elsewhere. We want hard conversations to happen. If they’re not happening, we’re probably not talking about the right issues.”

The ASD has created a volunteer board known as the Achievement Advisory Council, or AAC, to make recommendations about which schools should be run by which charter school operator. Ian Buchanan, the director of community partnerships for the ASD, said that it had gotten more than 30 applications for the board this year. “We want to get more parents whose kids are in school on the AAC this year,” he said.

ASD leaders make the final decision about which schools are taken over. Last year, the ASD followed four of the AAC’s six recommendations for the Memphis schools.

Capstone Education Group, Freedom Prep, Green Dot Public Schools, KIPP Memphis, The Libertas School, Scholar Academies, and YES Prep are all planning to either take over or start new schools in Memphis. LEAD Public Schools would open another middle school in Nashville.

59 schools in Memphis are on the current priority list. Nine of those are already in the ASD.

Barbic told the media when state test scores were released in August that the district would use school performance to determine which schools would expand. The ASD has set the goal of improving schools’ scores so that they are in the top 25 percent in the state, which Barbic has said was intended to ensure that the improvements are lasting and significant.

Two school operators that had initially been slated to open new ASD schools in 2015-16, Aspire Public Schools and Artesian Community Schools, no longer plan to open schools in the ASD next year.

Aspire’s schools in the ASD, Hanley 1 and Hanley 2, both saw drops in test scores last year, their first year of operation. The ASD decided that the school would not expand, based on a new policy that requires school operators to be on target to reach academic goals in at least half of their schools before they add schools, according to Smalley.

“After the first year of school for Aspire, there was a decision to not replicate and not expand next year, and to focus internally on making sure the schools they have have a phenomenal year,” Roen said.

Allison Leslie, the director of Aspire in Memphis, said the network plans to open a new charter school as part of Shelby County Schools in 2015-16.

Artesian Community Schools is a local organization that has not yet opened a school because they haven’t found a suitable principal yet, said Ashley Smith, the network’s executive director. She said the network plans to open a school in 2016-17.

Rocketship and KIPP Nashville are also authorized to open schools in the ASD but are not yet set to open any schools.

The ASD, which is in its third year running schools, was created by the state’s First to the Top Act and funded by the state’s federal Race to the Top grant.

Below, find the draft list, provided by the ASD. Phase-in schools take over a grade at a time, while “full-school transformations” take over entire existing schools. The ASD also may open two brand-new schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which organization decided that Aspire Public Schools would not open a new school in the ASD next year. The decision was made by the ASD based on a new policy.


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”