Challenging charters

Report: Why the work is hard for Tennessee’s turnaround district and its charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Charter schools operating through Tennessee’s 4-year-old school turnaround district have struggled to achieve the initiative’s lofty goals due to a variety of challenges — some unique to the state-run charter program, and some common to all Memphis schools, a new report says.

Tasked with transforming some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools through the Achievement School District, or ASD, the charter operators have grappled with “daunting challenges” that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition, according to the report released this week by researchers led by George Washington University.

The report, which is based on 140 interviews with leaders of the ASD and nine operators, illuminates some of the reasons why the state-run district has not come close to reaching its targeted goals of moving schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years.

Researchers also identify practices that charter operators are using to try to overcome the challenges, although they say it’s too soon to say whether the strategies have been effective. Those include instructional adaptations, computer-assisted learning and additional wraparound services.

The ASD’s work is concentrated in Memphis, where it manages 22 charter schools and five district-run schools. Many of the challenges identified by researchers — like high student mobility and lack of parent engagement — are endemic to most Memphis schools, including Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, which has drawn national attention for its academic gains, and which so far has been more effective than the ASD at boosting students’ scores.

But the paper’s authors argue that “ASD operators had to contend with many of the constraints that impede traditional schools, yet without the benefits that a conventional district could provide,” such as centralized special education services, resources that leverage economies of scale, and a long history with the community. And though the district aims to give them the benefits of other charter schools, like a high-level of autonomy, the ASD schools face challenges most charters do not.

The report comes at a time when several states such as North Carolina and Georgia are considering replicating Tennessee’s school turnaround district, which takes control of low-performing schools and assigns them to high-quality charter management organizations to turn around.

The paper provides a candid look at Tennessee’s much-watched effort to employ high-profile charter operators in school turnaround work in an environment that is substantially different from their usual circumstances. While many charters have been successful working with disadvantaged students, they historically have been reluctant to embrace conditions such as turnaround environments — for instance, having to assume control over existing neighborhood schools, rather than operating schools with open choice. But in Tennessee, where federal Race to the Top funding led to the creation its state-run district in 2010, many charter organizations were recruited and incentivized to join the portfolio of schools managed by the ASD and granted broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting.

“While charter operators were not naïve about the conditions in the ASD, many did not fully anticipate how much these differences (within turnaround environments) would influence their instructional and organizational designs, expand their mission, and require complex adaptations,” the authors write.

The researchers’ findings will be “a great conversation starter” within the ASD and with Shelby County Schools, said Bobby S. White, chief of external affairs for the state-run district.

“It’s good for people to see and get a feel for the challenges these charters are facing,” White said Wednesday. “It underscores how these operators are adapting in the face of these realities.”

White said the district will use the report to assess what parts of these challenges it can control or influence as charter operators adjust. The report also will help charter applicants to better understand the realities of school turnaround work in Memphis.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, put it this way when speaking with researchers: “When I’m talking to people now, I’m like, this is the big leagues. If you want to play the equivalent to basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats where every single game is huge, it’s a circus, you’re under intense scrutiny, the pressure to perform is incredible. … If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, come to Memphis.”

The main challenges faced by charter schools in the ASD, according to the researchers, are:

Student mobility. Like traditional public schools, but unlike most charter schools, ASD schools serve a steady flow of new students throughout the school year, making it harder to hone in on the learning challenges of students and offer tailored instruction. More than one-third of students in ASD schools move in or out of their schools during the school year, an improvement over student mobility at the schools prior to ASD takeover, and comparable to mobility in iZone schools.

One operator told researchers that leaders had expected the school’s third year of operation to be “the dream year” as students finally adjusted to the school’s culture and caught up to grade level. “Instead, it was very similar to our first year because of all the new students who arrived on our campus,” the operator said.

"Despite the ardent commitment of ASD leaders to create the conditions that would enable CMOs and independent operators to take root and flourish in the turnaround space, the inherited rules of the game, the institutional environment in which they were located, and the stresses of an impoverished community presented even the most experienced providers with steep challenges."Consortium report

While most educators in traditional Memphis schools are familiar with high student mobility, most charter operators weren’t. Most charter schools in other states aren’t neighborhood schools; families have to choose them. That makes it easier for charters to create a common school culture and get students and families to subscribe to a set of behavioral expectations — two factors considered key to charter schools’ successes. But Tennessee legislation requires ASD schools to recruit students within the boundaries of the school’s neighborhood attendance areas, or from other low-performing schools, restricting charters’ usual ability to draw from a broad pool of families.

Special education.  ASD operators serve a substantially higher concentration of students with special needs than is typical in other charter schools in Tennessee, one of the “most formidable financial and educational challenges” identified by the report’s authors because of the ASD’s funding model and relatively small size.

While Shelby County Schools and most other districts are able to centralize and share special education services across schools, the ASD is built on the idea of autonomy — meaning each school bears the cost of their special education students’ needs alone. Many ASD operators in Memphis send special education students to programs managed by Shelby County Schools and told the researchers that they suspected they were being overcharged for programs that they also did not deem high quality.

Some operators also told researchers that Shelby County Schools often became a barrier to serving special education students. According to the paper, some operators reported that the local district made it difficult to access students’ individualized education plans, known as IEPs, after the students transitioned to the ASD, which made it difficult for the new ASD schools to identify students’ needs and plan on how to support them.

“There was supposed to be a process in place to transfer all the files to us. And somehow that didn’t necessarily take place,” one operator said. “ So I played find the files. You know, they gave me a key and said the files are in a black filing cabinet. And so I still have the key — I still don’t have the files.”

Local politics. Operators were not prepared for the high level of opposition they would face in Memphis, or the compromises to their models they would have to make to respond to the local district and the community, the report says.

“This has been humbling for me,” said one operator who came to Tennessee from another state. “I’ve learned so much about just how complex education can be in particular landscapes.”

A major compromise has been the political shift requiring operators to take control of entire schools, rather than just a grade at a time. Leaders of Shelby County Schools barred phase-ins in 2014, saying the process was too disruptive for Shelby County students and faculty forced to share a school building with the ASD. While some operators, such as Green Dot Public Schools, always assumed control of whole schools, other operators never had — or planned to.

Researchers suggest that the community opposition to the ASD might have made leaders with Shelby County Schools wary of collaborating with the state-run district.

That being said, the ASD’s White told Chalkbeat that he is optimistic about the relationship between the districts.

“You’re starting to see conversations being had and realizations regarding the need to have these conversations,” White said.

The report was released by George Washington University, the University of Michigan, and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year