Takeover pause

Citing TNReady transition, Tennessee’s school turnaround district to halt takeovers for one year

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.

The Achievement School District will not seek to take over more low-performing schools in the 2017-18 school year because of the state’s transition to its new K-12 assessment this year, district leaders said Friday.

The decision is consistent with allowances being shown by the State Department of Education over student grades and teacher evaluations due to the failed rollout of TNReady, according to the announcement by Tennessee’s school turnaround district.

“Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement released through the ASD. “We remain committed to improving all schools as well as the work being done by the ASD …”

Under the new timetable, the next time the ASD will authorize new school charter operators will be the spring of 2017 for potential charter conversions in 2018-19. However, decisions on new school starts for previously authorized operators, grade expansion and non-academic school actions will continue and be based on operator and school performance.

“This is not a moratorium, it is a hold harmless year based on a new assessment,” the statement says.

Several state lawmakers from Memphis and school boards in both Memphis and Nashville have called for a one-year moratorium on ASD growth. The ASD operates 27 turnaround schools in Memphis and two in Nashville and will add four more in Memphis next school year.

A major issue behind calls for a moratorium was the ASD’s lackluster performance thus far in turning around struggling schools, but ASD leaders emphasized that their decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady. That rollout has been bumpy, with network outages that prompted the state to scrap its new online assessment, and numerous delays in delivering paper-based tests to local districts.

The district also hinted toward its next destination in turning around low-performing schools: Chattanooga. Five schools were in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in 2014.

“In the meantime, the department and the ASD will work closely with Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and other districts with Priority schools, including Hamilton County, to continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017,” the statement says.

Local school officials in Memphis were not immediately available to comment, but leaders in Nashville welcomed the news.

“It’s a positive first step toward a series of course corrections that need to happen with the Achievement School District. I’m glad the state is listening,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville board member who sponsored the resolution for an ASD moratorium, approved just this week by Nashville’s school board.

Chris Henson, interim director for Nashville’s district, added that “given that this is a new test, it is appropriate to give districts the leeway to decide how to use the results for their own accountability purposes. Knowing that the TDOE will also do the same as it applies to the Achievement School District is encouraging.”

State lawmakers and education advocates in Memphis also weighed in.

“The fact that the ASD/DOE is listening and holding their 17-18 school year as a ‘hold harmless’ year is a positive step in the right direction,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, another frequent ASD critic.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, an advocacy group that has supported the ASD’s efforts and assisted in parent engagement at Memphis schools considered for takeover, praised the ASD’s decision.

“Students need adequate time to prepare for and adjust to the new TNReady assessment, and this decision will allow for that,” said Mendell Grinter, the alliance’s state director.

"Extending flexibility to priority schools during this transition mirrors the flexibility we have offered to teachers and students."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

The ASD launched in 2011 and opened its first schools in 2012. It primary turnaround model is to take control of struggling schools and assign them to high-quality charter networks with the goal of turning them around within five years. Superintendent Malika Anderson has acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and likely will not be met. The recently released state list of schools in danger of appearing on the 2017 priority list — schools that are academically in the bottom 5 percent — shows that all but one of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort are still in the bottom 5 percent.

The district took a major hit last December when researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study suggesting that Memphis’ low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a turnaround initiative operated by the local district.

Pinkston said the state should adopt the model used by the iZone, whose test scores have outpaced the ASD cumulatively. “What Shelby County is doing works,” he said.

IZone schools remain within the local district but, like charters, have the autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day. Its leaders have said that constant collaboration is another key to its success thus far.

The ASD’s statement said the district will focus for now on its existing schools: “While in 2017-18 the ASD will not convert additional schools, we will continue to maintain the urgency, momentum, and attention on priority schools that has been so critical to the accelerated student growth we have seen,” the statement said. “… Our students cannot afford for us to slow down.”


Corrections & Clarifications: April 15, 2016: A previous version did not include that the ASD may choose to initiate new school starts for previously approved charter operators and grade expansion. That has been added. The story also clarifies that the ASD’s decision is based on the state’s transition to TNReady, not problems associated with the assessment’s rollout.

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.