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.

NEXT LEADER

Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.