changing of the guard

Malika Anderson, top Achievement School District official with Tennessee roots, will replace Barbic

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

After conducting a nationwide search, officials looking for someone to oversee Tennessee’s state-run turnaround school district landed close to home.

Malika Anderson will lead the Achievement School District starting at the end of 2015, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced on Tuesday.

Anderson, 40, currently is the district’s No. 2 official. When founding superintendent Chris Barbic announced his resignation in July, he said he hoped she would take his place.

Anderson said her top priority will be to increase transparency and local involvement in the state-run district, which has faced criticism from parents and community members in Memphis and Nashville who want to play a larger role in deciding which struggling schools the ASD absorbs and assigns to charter operators.

“It is very important to me that we create a system of schools that incorporates parent voice and is sustainable, and it has to be sustained on the power of parents,” Anderson said during a press conference at the State Capitol in Nashville. “You’ll see more decision-making that represents the power of parent voices.”

Choosing a successor to Barbic from within the district signals that the state is not planning to dramatically change its approach to overhauling low-performing schools. It also gives the state new ammunition to rebuff criticism that the ASD, its flagship effort, has relied too heavily on outsiders who do not understand local communities.

Anderson is black, like almost all of the ASD’s students and unlike Barbic. And while she moved to Tennessee from Washington, D.C., to help launch the district, she has deep connections to the state and a lineage of local black activists. Anderson’s grandfather, Kelly Smith, was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the minister at Nashville’s First Baptist Church-Capitol Hill, which her uncle now pastors. An aunt was one of the first black students to integrate Nashville’s public schools.

“Creating great neighborhood schools here is personal for me,” Anderson said in a letter posted on the ASD’s website. “The fight for social justice through education [is] the lifeblood of my family’s experience in and love for Tennessee.”

In its four years, the pioneering district has been credited with creating a sense of urgency to improve underperforming Tennessee schools, especially in Memphis, and has shepherded steady test score gains at some of its 29 schools in Memphis and Nashville. With its goal of vaulting schools from the bottom 5 percent statewide into the top quarter in five years by changing how they are managed, the ASD also has inspired imitations in other states.

But built into the district’s ambitious goals are persistent challenges.

This year’s test scores suggest that the district remains far from its ambitions for many of its schools, and that other turnaround efforts, including Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, may be paying off more quickly.

"Creating great neighborhood schools here is personal for me."Malika Anderson

At the same time, fewer schools are eligible for ASD takeover due to a new state law, and fewer organizations appear willing to take on the challenge of overhauling long-struggling schools under the ASD’s oversight — something that Barbic warned about when he announced his departure. Last week, the state announced that just three operators had applied to take over the five Memphis schools slated to join the district next year, down from eight operators who initially applied last year. Several of those, including some who operate high-performing charter schools in other states, also backed out of taking over schools.

And the district continues to face challenges getting parents to turn out to events intended to engage them, even after changing its school-assignment process to increase the number of parents involved and build community consensus.

Haslam said Anderson’s leadership is essential to ensuring that the district fulfills its lofty goals.

“The ASD is a critical part of Tennessee’s drive to improve outcomes for all of our students,” Haslam said. “Having someone of Malika’s background and commitment and wisdom to lead this effort in Tennessee is important.”

Haslam said state officials selected Anderson after a nationwide search. “Because Tennessee has built a reputation, a lot of people were interested in this position,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s wonderful when the very best person is already working for you.”

Anderson’s colleagues within the ASD said they are enthusiastic about Barbic’s successor.

“Everyone at LEAD respects her and feels supported by her in her current role as deputy superintendent,” said Chris Reynolds, CEO of LEAD Public Schools, which operates the ASD’s two Nashville schools.

“One of her greatest strengths is she understands the important role of community engagement,” Reynolds added. “… This has to be done with parents. This can’t be done in spite of parents. When you do it in spite of parents, they tell us they don’t like it, and they vote you out.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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