Future of Schools

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

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.”

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response:

Future of Schools

Short on students, 3 Indianapolis charter schools are closing. But 6 more will open in the fall

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Three Indianapolis charter schools facing financial struggles will close at the end of this school year, underscoring just how difficult it can be for charter schools to create sustainable operations.

As another sign of charter schools’ cash crunch, particularly in the city’s increasingly competitive school choice market, longtime Indianapolis charter network Tindley will merge its all-boys and all-girls middle schools into a single coeducational location.

Still, even as some schools close and consolidate, six more charter schools are poised to open in Indianapolis for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — including two that will be tasked with “restarting” schools within Indianapolis Public Schools as innovation schools.

In many parts of the city, the proliferation of charter schools is pushing the school choice conversation beyond simply providing more options to focusing on the quality of those options.

According to state data, nearly 17,000 students who live in Marion County — almost 11 percent — attend charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Across the state, charter schools are the fastest-growing school option, though they mostly serve urban areas.

Read more: How are Indiana charter schools doing? 9 things to know from the state’s first study

CLOSING: CARPE DIEM NORTHWEST

Among those shuttering schools are two that focused on blended learning. Carpe Diem Northwest, the national chain’s only remaining campus in the city, will shut its doors, the state charter school board said.

According to the Indiana Charter School Board, Carpe Diem’s board voted to close the school in March. The school’s principal and board president did not respond to requests for comment from Chalkbeat.

According to state data, 218 students were enrolled at Carpe Diem Northwest this year in grades 6-12 — an uptick likely due to the chain merging its former three campuses into one location. Consolidation efforts started in 2016, when Carpe Diem closed its Shadeland campus amid low enrollment. The chain’s Meridian Street campus lost its charter last year after struggling with academic problems, low enrollment, and financial instability.

CLOSING: NEXUS ACADEMY

Nexus Academy, which shared a building with the Glendale library branch, will also close this summer after a drawn-out attempt to stay open as curriculum providers pulled out of the school.

The school used blended learning to serve students who sought an alternative school environment, such as students with disabilities, students who didn’t succeed in conventional classroom settings, or students pursuing professional athletics or acting.

Nexus Academy had initially announced it would be closing at the end of the last school year, said board president Debra Morgan, when online K-12 management company Connections decided to close all of its Nexus Academy locations across three states.

But local leaders in Indianapolis wanted to keep the school open, so they began searching for a new management company. They were able to arrange a trilateral agreement with Connections and a new provider, California-based iLEAD Schools.

Still, Nexus Academy principal Jamie Brady said, “It was at the 13th hour, and it was too little, too late.”

Students had found other schools, and teachers had found other jobs. Marketing efforts to increase enrollment fell short, Brady said, and the school re-opened late in the year with too few students.

Earlier this spring, state charter officials deferred renewing Nexus Academy’s expiring charter. But before the school could return to make its case again, Brady and Morgan said iLEAD Schools also decided it could not help Nexus Academy, leading the school of about 25 students to close.

CLOSING: INDIANA COLLEGE PREP

A third school, the highly troubled Indiana College Preparatory School, will close after the mayor’s office ordered the school to shut down. The company running the school had stopped communicating with the mayor’s office, and the entire school board had resigned.

Read more: In debt, with too many unlicensed teachers, Indiana College Preparatory School loses charter

CLOSING: HOOSIER ACADEMY VIRTUAL

Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School, a statewide full-time virtual charter school that enrolls students from Indianapolis, is also closing after months of scrutiny from the state, dropping enrollment, and poor academic performance.

Read more: After years of failing grades, Hoosier Academy Virtual will close in June

CONSOLIDATING: TINDLEY MIDDLE SCHOOLS

Among Tindley’s local chain of six schools, its two middle schools will drop their single-gender programming to merge into one co-educational school.

Tindley CEO Kelli Marshall said the decision was in part financial, driven by declining enrollment. As charter school competition has increased, she said it was harder to attract students to the all-girls Tindley Collegiate Academy and all-boys Tindley Preparatory Academy.

Families also said the bridge into high school was more difficult for students who went to single-gender middle schools, Marshall said.

The merged middle schools will operate under the Tindley Collegiate name and use Tindley Prep’s building, next door to Tindley Renaissance, its feeder elementary school.

OPENING: ALLEGIANT PREP AND VANGUARD

A pair of charter schools will open on Indianapolis’ westside to focus on students in the Haughville area, each school founded by Building Excellent Schools fellows.

Allegiant Preparatory Academy will grow into a K-8 college preparatory school with a particular focus on literacy, led by Indianapolis native Rick Anderson. The first week of school will be devoted to teaching students about Allegiant’s culture and core values. Students will begin making college visits in kindergarten and first grade, and the school will also work with families on how to support students on their paths to college.

Allegiant is built upon the motto that “it takes a village” to ensure students’ successes.

“We’re all saying that we have our hands on the shoulder of this child, and we are going to ensure that they’re safe, that they’re learning, and that they’re also growing as leaders,” Anderson said.

At Vanguard Collegiate of Indianapolis, school founder Rob Marshall — also an Indianapolis native — wants to incorporate the school with the Haughville neighborhood, with students completing service learning and projects based on the needs of the community.

The school, located in the former IPS School 75 building, is specifically seeking to help low-income students who live nearby, and Marshall said his leadership team is intentionally composed of people coming from backgrounds similar to their students.

“We know these students can achieve,” he said. “They just need the right adult that understands the circumstances and is willing to build the relationships.”

Vanguard will be “unapologetically” college prep-focused, Marshall added, with mandatory tutoring at the end of school that helps students with whatever they may have struggled with in that day’s lessons.

Both schools say they expect to ramp up enrollment efforts this summer.

OPENING: PILOTED SCHOOLS

PilotED started as after-school programs in Chicago, and now it’s turning into a new school in Fountain Square, in the former home of Indiana Math and Science Academy South and IPS School 64.

PilotED is focused on social identity, asking both teachers and students to examine difficult questions about power and privilege. The school incorporates social justice and racial equity into academics.

School co-founder and The Mind Trust fellow Jacob Allen said he hopes the model does more than prepare students academically for college — he wants it to position students to persist and graduate, particularly students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Allen also said the school wants to pay attention to teacher development and perks, including providing a mental health stipend, a staff gym, and co-working space.

OPENING: PARAMOUNT’S SECOND CAMPUS

Paramount School of Excellence is expanding to a second location about two miles away from its flagship eastside campus. Paramount Community Heights will serve students in grades K-4.

TURNAROUND: MATCHBOOK LEARNING

Matchbook Learning, a turnaround operator with a troubled history, will restart IPS School 63 on the westside as an innovation school. The charter school uses software to help teachers track students’ progress, a model that Matchbook founder and The Mind Trust fellow Sajan George hopes will lead to dramatic test score gains.

Read more: Ousted from Detroit and Newark, turnaround operator Matchbook could get a fresh start in Indianapolis

TURNAROUND: URBAN ACT ACADEMY

URBAN ACT, led by The Mind Trust fellow Nigena Livingston, will restart IPS School 14, a downtown school that has long served many students who are homeless. She plans to use “place-based learning,” a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

Read more: Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up