It’s “TCAP blitz” month at Treadwell Middle School, which means “there’s no time wasted” in preparing for the state’s annual achievement test, says principal T.S. McBride.

Teachers are working overtime, providing tutoring to students who lag and sending those who struggle with practice tests to Saturday school.

Such laser focus on test results is a trademark of Treadwell and other Memphis schools in the “Innovation Zone,” or iZone. The program is Shelby County’s most ambitious—and expensive—turnaround effort for schools labeled priority schools in Tennessee because they fall in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

Last year, the intensity paid off at Treadwell, which doubled its number of students meeting both state math and reading expectations and resulted in the school’s removal from the state’s priority list. Many of the district’s other 12 iZone schools have shown similar improvement.

The iZone has been so successful at turning the trajectory of test scores, in fact, that Shelby County administrators want to invest $7 million more in the program next school year, despite the district facing a $125 million budget shortfall.

The additional money will be needed to work with more than 1,400 new students expected to enter the iZone next school year. Last week, the Shelby County Board of Education voted to close three underperforming Memphis schools and pull hundreds more students from four more. All of the students will be placed in iZone schools. A.B. Hill Elementary School also will be absorbed into the program, bringing the number of iZone schools to 14.

Sharon Griffin, the director of the iZone, observes a classroom.
Sharon Griffin, the iZone’s regional superintendent in Memphis

As a result, the iZone is expected to swell to more than 10,000 students within the state’s largest public school district, which provides K-12 education for 108,000 students.

Sharon Griffin, regional superintendent of the iZone, is working to keep the program intact under fast growth and big expectations.

“We have to have all the right people in the right places,” Griffin recently told Chalkbeat. “We are going to make it work. We have to make it work.”

To improve student test scores, the iZone employs intensive coaching, teacher incentives, wraparound services, heavy intervention and strict discipline.

For Shelby County Schools, the iZone has been not only an effective turnaround strategy but a way to curb declining enrollment and avoid further budget cuts. One-third of the district, or 59 schools, are on the state’s priority list and therefore are at risk of being taken over by the state’s Achievement School District (ASD), which oversees Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. Once the state moves a school to the ASD, the local district loses all state and local money that follows its students. In Shelby County, 22 schools formerly operated by the local district are now under the ASD’s purview. That transition is expected to cost Shelby County Schools $18.4 million from the state next school year and another $4.7 million from local government.

Earlier this year, ASD administrators said they won’t intervene for three years in priority schools that are in the iZone to allow time for improvement under the district’s watch.

To offset the district’s $125 million shortfall, the administration is proposing laying off 154 special education staff members, outsourcing most of its maintenance crew and pulling $25 million from its savings account, among other things.

The iZone is the exception, but operating and expanding the program does not come cheap. Federal and philanthropic grants have helped to fund the initiative, but many of the largest grants are drying up at the end of the year. At one point, the district considered handing over its iZone schools to charter operators – a proposal that didn’t fly with board members.

For the 2015-16 school year, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking for $7 million in addition to the district’s current $11.7 million Strategy and Innovation budget – most of which goes to the iZone. Most of the new money would pay for additional instructional coaches and teacher signing bonuses and for adding an hour onto the school day.

The district has secured a $2.6 million local grant to support a blended learning initiative in which students use laptop computers to help them with their school work. Leaders also reconfigured the department and reduced the amount of money teachers receive for the additional hour they work every day.

Administrators have said the iZone will benefit also from a $41 million settlement reached with the Memphis City Council in January over a longstanding funding lawsuit. The district recently received its first payment of $8 million under that agreement.

District leaders continue to tout the iZone as the right direction for the beleaguered school system.

At Treadwell, signs line the hallways reminding students of the rules. Students speak openly with guests about the school’s structure and discipline. As part of the transition to an iZone school, McBride replaced the vast majority of her staff, repainted the hallways and refurbished the bathrooms, some of which had stall doors missing.

“There are so many kids who come in so far behind. We have to find the time and resources to pay attention to those problem,” she said.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or (901) 260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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