wish list

Memphis school leaders present wish list to lawmakers over turf issues with state-run district

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.

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.

Brad Leon, Shelby County Schools Chief of Strategy & Innovation.
PHOTO: SCS
Brad Leon, Shelby County Schools

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.

good news bad news

Most Tennessee districts are showing academic growth, but districts with the farthest to go improved the least

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

It’s not just Memphis: Across Tennessee, districts with many struggling schools posted lower-than-expected growth scores on this year’s state exams, according to data released Tuesday.

The majority of Tennessee’s 147 districts did post scores that suggest students are making or exceeding expected progress, with over a third earning the top growth score.

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The divide prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to send a “good news, bad news” email to superintendents.

“These results point to the ability for all students to grow,” she wrote of the top-performing districts, many of which have a wide range of academic achievement and student demographics.

Of those in the bottom, she said the state would analyze the latest data to determine “critical next steps,” especially for priority schools, which also are located in high-poverty communities.

“My message to the leaders of Priority schools … is that this level of growth will never get kids back on track, so we have to double-down on what works – strong instruction and engagement, every day, with no excuses,” McQueen said.

Growth scores are supposed to take poverty into account, so the divide suggests that either the algorithm didn’t work as it’s supposed to or, in fact, little has happened to change conditions at the state’s lowest-performing schools, despite years of aggressive efforts in many places.

The results are bittersweet for Tennessee, which has pioneered growth measures for student learning and judging the effectiveness of its teachers and schools under its Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.

On the one hand, the latest TVAAS data shows mostly stable growth through the transition to TNReady, the state’s new test aligned to new academic standards, in the first year of full testing for grades 3-11. On the other hand, Tennessee has invested tens of millions of dollars and years of reforms toward improving struggling schools — all part of its massive overhaul of K-12 education fueled by its 2009 federal Race to the Top award.

The state-run Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era to turn around the lowest-performing schools, saw a few bright spots, but almost two-thirds of schools in its charter-reliant portfolio scored in the bottom levels of student growth.

Shelby County’s own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone, fared poorly too, with a large percentage of its Memphis schools scoring 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, after years of scoring 4s and 5s.


District profile: Most Memphis schools score low on student growth


Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called the results a “wakeup call” for the state’s biggest district in Memphis.

“When you have a population of kids in high poverty that were already lagging behind on the old, much easier test, it’s not surprising that we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he said, citing the need to support teachers in mastering the state’s new standards.

“The good part is that we’ve seen the test now and we know what’s expected. The bad part is we’ve seen the test … and it’s a different monster,” he told Chalkbeat.

You can find district composite scores below. (A TVAAS score of 3 represents average growth for a student in one school year.) For a school-by-school list, visit the state’s website.

chalk talk

Memphis’ new iZone chief shares his data-driven plan for fixing struggling schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

When Antonio Burt left Memphis to jumpstart turnaround work in Florida schools known as “failure factories,” he took with him lessons from Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

A founding iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School, Burt is now back in Memphis to oversee the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Among his responsibilities: sustaining the iZone’s growth and taking some of its strategies to other struggling schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

Since starting as assistant superintendent in July, Burt has acquired 66 schools in his caseload. Twenty-three are iZone schools, and the rest are in or near the state’s bottom 10 percent on test scores. The latter group includes “critical focus schools” that have a chance to turn themselves around or be recommended for closure by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Chalkbeat sat down recently with Burt to talk about what iZone lessons worked in his last job with Pinellas County Schools near Tampa, as well as his plan for improving historically low-performing schools in Memphis. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How have you jumped into your new job, and what does it look like?

July was strictly around studying the data, formulating next moves, structuring teams, outlining programs that work, and also doing a lot of listening. You don’t want to implement things blind to what’s already in place, and you want to know if there are areas that you can build upon.

I looked at each school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and potential threats or barriers. Based on that analysis, I designed what my support would look like for the upcoming year. Some schools will see me six times this year, some four, and some twice.  

"If you don't codify best practices, you run the risk of having silos of success. "

I’m thinking a lot about alignment. When you implement two new curriculums (for English and math) in the same year, you have to make sure all departments and supports are aligned so you won’t have any gaps or fault lines. I have instructional leadership directors (ILDs) going into schools together with content advisers to make sure they are saying the same thing, using the same language, so we don’t send out mixed messages. We have more ILDs this year with smaller caseloads. They’re really the drivers of change when you think about the number of times they’re in the building supporting schools.

If you don’t codify best practices, you run the risk of having silos of success. So how can we align those best practices and have more systemic success across the entire zone? That’s a lot of my major work.

How did you get interested in turnaround work?

My first teaching position was at Cypress Middle School in North Memphis. I was 22 and fresh out of college. At that time, Cypress was probably the toughest middle school, or one of the toughest schools in the city. Huge overage grade population and roughly 60 to 70 percent of the building was receiving some type of SPED services. Plus, that area is considered one of the most impoverished zip codes in the United States.

Seeing how the kids responded with the right leadership and the right individuals in the building was like they were yearning for structure and support. But as a teacher, there was only so much I could do. The whole time, I was painting a picture in my head: If I was a leader, these are the things that I would do; these are things I wouldn’t do. Two years in, I knew I wanted to be a principal, and I started to align my work around that goal.

What iZone practices worked in your last job in Florida?

Some of what I did was iZone practices, but some were specific to what worked at Ford Road Elementary. For example, my content coaches did a curriculum diagnostic to match curriculum with the state standards and we created instructional focus calendars. We introduced certain standards earlier in the year. … We also had teachers give bi-weekly assessments. That got a lot of pushback, but I’m a strong advocate that you have to practice how you plan on playing. I need to know on a two-week basis where you actually are after we’ve delivered nine days of instruction. I knew it would work because I did it at Ford Road. That was the driver that helped the two lowest-performing schools in Florida jump from F to C because they had real-time data throughout the school year. Before that, they only had district assessments given every nine weeks or so. So, for nine weeks, we don’t know how your kids are performing, and your teachers don’t know. And remember, these are brand new teachers primarily in these schools. It’s important that we give them real-time data and help them learn how the data drives your instruction.

Before you left for Florida, you worked briefly with the five state-run Achievement Schools in Frayser. What differences did you see between the Achievement School District and the iZone?

The ASD had been through a lot of changes, which brought about inconsistency. The iZone was probably moving the needle on scale more regularly. The iZone had a little more consistency. You had some of those same leaders, and they would do well in those seven or eight schools before you add more. They built upon successes, whereas I think the ASD was still trying to figure it out.

"When you walk into schools, a kid will ask you, 'Are you going to be here next year?'"

Leadership drives change. If you’ve got a leader who is proven, who has done it, and who can actually walk you through it and show you how, that helps. In a city like Memphis, it’s already a mobile city. When you walk into schools, a kid will ask you, ‘Are you going to be here next year?’ That lets you know that kid has experienced a lot of faces inside the building. Whether it’s Shelby County, charter or whatever, kids will ask you that question. It’s a question that used to pain me as a principal. I think one of the things that contributed to the iZone’s success was consistency in human capital — from the teachers, from school leaders — and they were able to take lessons learned and implement those into the next year.

How does poverty affect the classroom? What is a school’s role in mitigating those challenges for its students?

Poverty is a societal ill that we can’t overlook. When you think of kids who may be coming to school from impoverished areas, sometimes the socialization piece may not be there because they often have to fend for themselves for meals, protection, shelter. Poverty also plays a factor in school readiness. You may enter school with a 30,000-word deficit in vocabulary, which means schools are playing catchup at an early age.

If we don’t address the gap early in the game, then the likelihood of the kid being successful in third grade and after is very slim. We have to make sure kids are entering third grade as close to grade level as possible, and that means making sure that we’re providing foundational literacy skills that may be missing.

Schools play a major role in reversing some of the views or actions that come out of poverty. It’s the school leader’s responsibility to have individuals inside of the building that show that you care and you’re there for the kid. You can do that in multiple ways like sponsoring after-school activities or engaging kids in the hallway. When you do that, you’re breaking a mindset of “no one cares.”

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat does Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. Email your suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]