Next moves

During its year off from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district eyes Chattanooga

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A student at work at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

With its one-year hiatus from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district is focusing on adding supports for its 33 existing schools in Memphis and Nashville, with an eye toward possible expansion in Chattanooga beginning in 2018.

Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson also met earlier this month with Shawn Joseph, the new superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. However, White said he did not know whether that meeting, which also included state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, included talks about possible further expansion in Nashville, where the ASD now operates two schools.

Most of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools have either been closed or are already under turnaround plans through the ASD or Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee’s fourth largest district, saw its standardized test scores decline in 2015 and has been in transition since March when Rick Smith resigned as superintendent. The city has launched a school improvement initiative known as Chattanooga 2.0 to increase pre-K access, literacy rates and career readiness.

Five Chattanooga schools were on Tennessee’s 2014 list of priority schools — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically — which would have made them eligible for state intervention:

  • Brainerd High
  • Dalewood Middle
  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Orchard Knob Middle
  • Woodmore Elementary

The next priority school list is scheduled to be released next summer, but the state released a warning list earlier this year of schools in danger. In addition to the five Hamilton County on the 2014 list, this year’s list of schools in the bottom 5 percent includes:

  • Clifton Hills Elementary
  • The Howard School in Chattanooga

Nashville also is ripe for more state intervention. The city had 15 schools on the 2014 priority school list, including Neely’s Bend Middle, which the ASD took control of in 2015. This year’s warning list included 11 of those schools and four additional schools* in the bottom 5 percent:

  • Kirkpatrick Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Buena Vista Elementary Enhanced Option
  • Napier Elementary Enhancement Option
  • Inglewood Elementary
  • John B Whitsitt Elementary
  • Bailey STEM Magnet Middle
  • Madison Middle
  • Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High
  • Robert Churchwell Elementary
  • Jere Baxter Middle
  • Joelton Middle
  • Wright Middle*
  • Warner Elementary Enhanced Option*
  • McKissack Middle*
  • Whites Creek High*

The state’s next priority list will be based on two years of test data instead of the normal three because of this year’s failed rollout of TNReady, the state’s new standardized test.

The ASD’s entrance into Chattanooga would be more deliberate and methodical than it was in Memphis, according to White. He said the district plans to learn from missteps in taking control of schools in Memphis, which prompted deep distrust between the state-run district and the community.

“Memphis did not have the benefit of a long runway,” he said of the ASD’s startup in 2012. “A longer runway allows us to deal with misconceptions on the front end. … Sometimes the best efforts are undermined by bad information.”

Talks with Chattanooga leaders won’t necessarily lead to school takeovers, emphasized Lauren Walker, ASD chief of staff.

“We want to get under the hood and understand the context there,” Walker said. “The (warning) list only gives a small picture of what’s happening.”

Hamilton County Schools has its own Innovation Zone for school turnaround work, but it has not seen the same academic gains as Shelby County Schools’ iZone.

While the warning list does not carry the same weight as the priority list, it offers districts a sneak peek at which schools might be eligible for state intervention beginning in 2018. One reason for new additions to the warning list is that the bar for the state’s bottom 5 percent has risen as priority schools see academic growth. In 2012, when the first list came out, the lowest percent of students learning at grade level at a school was 16.7. Last year, that number rose to 26 percent, according to state data aggregated by the ASD.

In announcing its school takeover hiatus in April, the ASD left room to open new schools during the interim. None are slated to open as new starts in 2016-17 school year, but that is a possibility for the following year. Charter operators under the ASD run five new-start schools, all in Memphis.

The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.

“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.