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.
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.”