Future of Schools

Tennessee’s state-run school turnaround district poised to escape lawmakers’ intervention — again

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Though behind the Senate, the Tennessee House of Representatives is wrapping up committees as this year's session nears conclusion.

Despite blustery talk of clipping the Achievement School District’s wings this year, Tennessee’s school turnaround district appears poised to escape this legislative session unscathed, with as much support as ever among the ranks of lawmakers.

Last year, 22 bills were filed to limit or place controls on the district, which began operations in 2011 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, most of which are in Memphis.

This year, seven bills were filed related to the state-run district, and only two appear to be still in play. Both are sponsored by Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who managed last year to shepherd in a law that prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high-growth test scores.

Both of Akbari’s active 2016 bills have been amended to soften the impact on the ASD.

One measure, which is headed to the House floor, originally would have prohibited the ASD from taking over a school if other schools are ranked below it. The amended bill removes references to the ASD and proposes that the state begin ranking schools according to academic performance on its priority list of lowest-performing schools.

Akbari’s second bill, which she’s scheduled to present next week in subcommittee, would require the ASD to post more information online about the charter networks that run its schools. The bill originally would have required charter operators to demonstrate certain student achievement levels before being authorized to operate another public charter school, either within the ASD or a local district.

A pragmatist, Akbari says the tougher ASD legislation will be discussed during lawmakers’ summer study sessions.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

“You have to have support … and you have to bring everyone to the table, and that takes time,” she said Thursday.

This year’s ASD-related bills ranged from a proposal to abolish the ASD to one allowing the state-run district to take over a school only if no other lower-performing school is eligible for intervention. But most have fizzled or languished in committees before being debated.

The legislative sputtering is indicative of continued support for the ASD by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who maintain that the state’s turnaround district is an important part of Tennessee’s multi-pronged strategy to improve low-performing schools.

It also stands in stark contrast to the angry rhetoric of last December when a significant Vanderbilt University study showed that ASD schools had shown less academic growth than other urban schools in Innovation Zones, which are turnaround programs operated by local districts. Fueling the anger were allegations that the ASD had rigged its process last fall for determining whether to proceed with interventions at low-performing Memphis schools being matched with charter operators. The confluence of events prompted Shelby County’s school board and the state legislature’s black caucus to call for a moratorium on ASD expansion until it shows consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.

No bills were filed this year to seek a moratorium, but lawmakers did file several aimed at restricting the ASD’s autonomy.

The most robust debate occurred this week in a House subcommittee when ASD supporters and critics packed a hearing room in Legislative Plaza in opposition to a bill by Rep. Bill Beck, a Nashville Democrat. The proposal would have allowed parents to halt ASD school takeovers with the signatures of 60 percent of parents at the schools in question.

Beck brought in heavy hitters — Jesse Register, former director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools; Sue Kessler, a principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville; and Mark North, an attorney — who charged that the ASD did not collaborate sufficiently with Metro Nashville when it took over a middle school last year that already had been improving on its own, which state test scores later bore out.

But they were outnumbered and overshadowed by impassioned parents who had traveled to Nashville from Memphis in support of the ASD, even though the bill in question was directed at Neely’s Bend College Prep in Beck’s district, now one of the ASD’s two schools in Nashville. Bedecked in orange T-shirts, the parents from Memphis Lift, an advocacy group started by a former ASD official and funded by a company founded by charter school supporter John Little, cheered throughout testimony from ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson and Keith Williams, a senior fellow with Tennessee’s chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

The bill ultimately was defeated on a voice vote as the debate highlighted the nuances — and sometimes inconsistencies — of some of the arguments presented.

Supporters say the ASD brings empowering choice to low-income parents. But when faced with a bill to let parents collectively choose to take back the reins of a school from the ASD, those same supporters cried foul. The ASD has only helped low-income families like their own, they argued, and its growth shouldn’t be hindered.

Historically, members of the House Education Administration & Planning subcommittee have supported “school choice” and data-backed decision-making. But when presented with data showing that the ASD opted last year to take over Neely’s Bend Middle Prep instead of lower-performing priority schools in Nashville, committee members maintained their support for the state-run district, saying it was the most effective tool for improvement.

The raucous debate likely was the last one about the ASD for this year’s legislative session, which is drawing to a close.

"We value ... the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early."Malika Anderson, ASD superintendent

But Anderson, who became the ASD’s chief in January, insists it’s still too early to tell, with some bills still on committee calendars and several weeks before the General Assembly adjourns. “I think that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the impact of this legislative session on the ASD,” Anderson said Thursday. “We value the meaningful, informative and mostly cooperative work that the ASD, our parents, community members and legislators are engaged in throughout the legislative process and would hate to short circuit it by predicting outcomes this early.”

Of bills that are tabled this year, many will make their way to legislative study sessions this summer, according to Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who is the lead sponsor of an ASD-related bill drafted by Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. That bill would limit ASD eligibility to the state’s bottom 2.5 percent of schools instead of the bottom 5 percent.

“The bill was filed more to have a discussion,” Dunn said. “In my view, it would be better over the summer to really take a hard look at schools and see the best way to move forward.”

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”