Leaders for Shelby County Schools have asked state lawmakers to put more controls over the Achievement School District as the two districts seek to co-exist in Memphis for a fifth year.
Shelby County Schools continues to reel from the steady growth of the state-run district, which has taken control of 24 Memphis schools since 2012 and continues to siphon off students and funding.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Innovation Brad Leon laid out their requests for policy changes to state lawmakers this week in Nashville. They said the changes would help improve the relationship between the two districts, both of which are seeking to turn the trajectory on low-performing schools, but using different turnaround models.
“We’re not here to bash the ASD,” Hopson told lawmakers as ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson sat quietly nearby. “There are just some challenges with the process that have an impact on us.”
Since the legislature created the state-run district in 2010 to shake up chronically low-performing schools, the education landscape has shifted significantly in Memphis, where most of those schools existed. By 2017, 10 percent of public school students zoned for Shelby County Schools will attend ASD schools, up from 5.6 percent in 2015.
While local districts in Tennessee answer to school boards, the ASD has no public board and answers to the state legislature. Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis and chairman of an education subcommittee, said lawmakers are interested in learning more before the next legislative session starts in January.
ASD officials said that they look forward to those discussions.
“We are constrained by law in some areas like our mandate to look at annual growth of eligible schools on a yearly basis,” said Margo Roen, chief of new schools and accountability. “However, we will remain committed to these discussions and the type of collaboration that produces results that are in the best interest of children.”
Here’s what leaders of Shelby County Schools are asking for:
Give Shelby County Schools more time to plan for potential school takeovers.
Local leaders say the ASD should be required to announce schools under consideration for takeover within six months of running the priority list, which comes out every three years and identifies schools in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent that are eligible for ASD takeover. Currently, the ASD selects schools to take over annually. The next list is due out in 2017. Leon said a more contained notice period would help Shelby County Schools avoid disruption to academic programming, as well as help the local district to know how many schools and students to budget for.
The ASD should take over the lowest-performing schools first. Start at the bottom and work up the list, suggests Leon. Currently, the ASD can pick any school that makes the priority list, no matter what the order. Shifting to a bottom-up approach likely would take some of the heat off Memphis, home to all but two of the ASD’s 33 schools. It also likely would point the ASD toward districts in Nashville, Chattanooga or Knoxville. “There’s certainly a disproportionate number of schools on the priority list in Shelby County, but we see the ASD not focus on any other part of the state that has low-performing schools,” Leon said. ASD officials already have indicated plans to explore expansion elsewhere in 2018, including Chattanooga.
Prohibit phase-ins when converting a local school to a charter school. When the ASD came to Memphis, it authorized charter operators that typically wanted to phase in their operations one or several grades at a time. That meant that the local district and its employees and students had to share a building with the ASD as the charter operator gradually took control of more grades. Leon said this approach kept the ASD from serving all students who attended the school when it made the priority list. “(This is) the opposite of urgency,” Leon said.
Don’t rely only on charter operators for turnaround work. The ASD runs five Memphis schools itself, but for the last three years has only authorized charter operators to do its newest turnaround work. Leon said the ASD should go back to a mixture of ASD-run and charter-run schools because of the limited number of high-quality charter operators. “There are going to be times you’ve got a low-performing charter and you may not have the operator waiting in the wings, and you don’t take the accountability moves you should be making,” Leon said.
End the creation of new ASD schools until the state-run district can show consistent academic gains at existing schools. Seven of the ASD’s 33 schools are not takeovers but were started from scratch. Leon charged that new starts go against the ASD’s mission to help pre-existing struggling schools. He said the ASD shouldn’t be allowed to start new schools until the rest of the schools in the state-run district posts academic gains. For the last two years, the ASD had a TVAAS score of 1, meaning their students grew less than expected or declined in performance. (Schools that had been in the ASD for longer saw more growth.) “When you have two consecutive years of Level 1 TVAAS and you continue to expand, I would suggest that you need to fix your own shop before you start to take on additional schools,” Leon said.
Fund Shelby County Schools students at the same level as ASD students. Shelby County Schools received $500 less per student of state and local funds last year than ASD students. Despite a boost in state education spending, Shelby County Schools is still struggling with annual budget cuts, and it’s not clear if its own school turnaround effort, the Innovation Zone, is sustainable due to the expensive interventions required. Leon asked for state funds to be distributed among the districts more equitably.
Roen said the ASD has its own wish list for Shelby County Schools, including increasing the availability of information on students who transition from Shelby County to ASD schools.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from ASD officials.