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.”

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.