At critical moment, state-run Achievement School District posts big gains at its original schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Students, teachers, and families from six of the Achievement School Districts' schools attended a rally at Whitney Achievement Elementary Wednesday to celebrate gains on the TCAP.

After a bumpy first two years, a flagship effort to turn around some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools is showing the test score gains it was created to accomplish.

Math and science scores rose faster this year at schools in the Achievement School District than they did on average across the state, while their reading scores kept pace with the state. Schools that have been under the ASD’s control for the longest saw the largest gains.

You can see school-level and district scores here, and our list of things to consider while doing your own test score analysis here.

The improvements came after two years in which stagnant or even falling test scores raised questions about whether the ASD could achieve its goal of catapulting schools from the bottom 5 percent statewide to the top quarter.

The district’s strategy is to overhaul the low-performing schools, usually by assigning them to charter operators, without changing their student bodies.

Since the ASD launched three years ago, it has been touted by policymakers in Tennessee and across the country as a promising approach for states looking to improve their lowest-performing schools — and criticized by some local educators and communities for not showing results quickly enough.

ASD officials and state officials said Wednesday that the new scores suggest that the district’s approach takes time to bear fruit.

“We needed time to see the progress, and now we have, and it’s like a shot in the arm,” outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic said at a rally in Frayser to celebrate the test score gains .

“When you look at the schools that have been part of the ASD the longest…we’re seeing the growth that was anticipated,” state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen added.

Indeed, gains were most dramatic in the first schools absorbed by the ASD three years ago. Schools under their first year of ASD control saw slower gains, or even slid backwards, just as the schools posting large gains this year did two years ago.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 11.21.43 AM
PHOTO: Achievement School District
The Achievement School District posted larger gains in math and science than the state as a whole. Graphic provided by the ASD.

Barbic said there are good reasons for schools not to show dramatic test score gains in the first year of a turnaround effort.

“What we’re learning is step one is establishing a strong and positive culture,” he said. “Once you establish culture, then you can leverage that, and turn it into academic results for kids.”

Still, it’s not clear if the schools are improving fast enough to be among the top-performing in Tennessee in two years. More than half of elementary and middle schools across the state have math proficiency levels above 50 percent this year, while in the ASD, only Whitney Achievement Elementary School had a proficiency level that high.

And next year the state will get a new test, TNReady, which McQueen has said likely will cause scores to fall across the state.

Barbic said he is optimistic that at least some of the schools are on track to achieve the district’s lofty ambitions.

“None of us are able to predict the future but … our belief is that as long as we can sustain that growth, then we will certainly have schools in the top quartile in five years time,” he said.

This year was an especially important year for Westside Achievement School, one of the ASD’s direct-run schools. If schools in the ASD don’t make gains for two consecutive years, the management and teachers are booted. Out of 26 ASD schools last year, only six were in their third year.  Of those, only Westside was in danger of another overhaul. Double-digit gains in math and science have averted that possibility.

Tim Ware, the director of the district’s direct-run schools, said at the rally that he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the improvements.

“It’s … a hundred specific things working in concert with each other,” he said. “A close partnerships with the community, an in-depth understanding of where students are academically, and an understanding of how to move them where they need to be.”

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.