lessons learned

Vacant homes, enrollment cap: Gestalt’s CEO on why one of the ASD’s first charter operators is also the first out

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yetta Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools, answers questions from parents and teachers during an October assembly at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School.

Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis says it was a hard decision for the Memphis-based charter network to step away from two state-run schools in its hometown.

Gestalt was an early investor in Tennessee’s unprecedented school turnaround initiative. The network was among the first to sign up for the tough task through the Achievement School District, which launched in Memphis in 2012. But last month, Gestalt also became the initiative’s first operator to announce plans to exit the state-run district.

Left behind will be the students, teachers and neighborhoods of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary schools, who are waiting to learn their fate after Gestalt’s departure at the end of this school year.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Lewis puts the blame for the pullout squarely on chronic under-enrollment borne from declining population in North Memphis and exacerbated by the ASD’s state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment. She says even a 2015 state law that allowed ASD schools to enroll up to 25 percent of their students from outside of their neighborhoods was not enough to keep Gestalt in the game.

In a recent Q&A, Lewis talks about Gestalt’s pullout, its challenges as a state-authorized charter operator, and what its leaders have learned during its years with the Achievement School District.

Here are some of the highlights, which have been condensed for brevity:

What led to the decision to leave the ASD?

It’s about enrollment. We are starting our fourth year at Klondike and our fifth year at Humes. We’ve seen a 15 percent decrease in enrollment each year. We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis. There are rows of vacant homes. The school-age population has dropped by 35 percent. Klondike is on the same road as Northside High School (which was closed over the summer by Shelby County Schools), so we knew we weren’t the only schools in that area facing this challenge. We don’t have the capacity to take the loss of two schools on enrollment.

When did you loop in the ASD on your decision? What came next?

Our first official conversation was in October. We were hoping for a big push in enrollment this year. But after Labor Day, we could see that the numbers weren’t going to turn around. When we know something definite, we want to tell our stakeholders as soon as we possibly can. We don’t have a solution on what’s next for these schools, but we want those stakeholders to be involved in the decision-making process. (ASD officials then held meetings with Humes and Klondike parents and faculty in partnership with Gestalt. They’ve set a Dec. 9 deadline to decide their fate in order “to give parents and teachers alike enough time to make informed decision,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs.)

After this school year, you’ll still have four schools authorized under Shelby County Schools. What are the biggest differences in operating in the ASD vs. SCS?

Turnaround work changed everything for us, but it’s not easy. Not getting a list of eligible students from Shelby County Schools made it difficult (for our ASD schools). We had 180 students on a list for middle school last year, but this year we didn’t receive any list. That was a struggle for us. The list was some level of contact for us. It was a very big challenge to get what we needed. If there’s anything I could change about the ASD, it’d be the ability to have a working list of eligible kids.

Another big difference is the enrollment cap for ASD schools. The population of North Memphis is declining, leaving fewer and fewer students in our zone. But we had families from outside of North Memphis who wanted the Gestalt experience. It’s a big difference for us that the enrollment restraints aren’t there when we open schools under Shelby County Schools.

Would you open another charter school with the ASD in the future?

If conditions were different with enrollment, we would consider operating with the ASD again. We don’t open a school for the sake of growth. When we opened ASD schools, we saw a need for what we do. But enrollment numbers over the years have made it really hard to do what we do. We provide one-to-one technology, a computer for every scholar. We provide every student with a uniform. It’s expensive, and we didn’t have the numbers in North Memphis for our program to be sustainable there. Our program provides educational support that every child deserves.

What are some of the biggest lessons Gestalt has learned in its school turnaround work with the ASD?

Our teacher-leadership program. That wouldn’t have happened without turnaround work. The ASD experience really showed us the value of cultivating teacher leaders in our schools, and we have a program in place now.

Also, our community partnerships, such as Behavior Services MidSouth, Communities in Schools, and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Our work with the ASD taught us how it’s not enough to provide strong academics, but you need strong social and emotional infrastructure as well. Community partners in our schools help us to do the work to serve the whole child. And that’s ultimately the biggest lesson, that we want our kids to feel known, loved, supported and educated.

measuring up

After five years, the Tennessee-run district isn’t performing any better than low-performing schools receiving no intervention, research says

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

After five years of trying to turn around low-performing schools, Tennessee’s state-run schools aren’t performing any better than schools that haven’t received any intervention, according to new research released Tuesday.

But locally controlled low-achieving districts called Innovation Zones have not only improved performance — as shown in other studies —  but have sustained those improvements over five years.

That time period is seen as a significant marker because previous research has found it can take up to five years to see improvement from school interventions. Both the state-run district and the local iZones were launched 6 years ago.

Tennessee is seen as a leader in turnaround work around the nation. The state-run district began taking over schools in 2012, saying it would vault 5 percent of the state’s lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools in Memphis and Nashville, and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around.

But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students, retain high-quality teachers, and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 30.

The study compared Tennessee’s state-run district with other low-performing schools statewide and found that average test scores in reading, math, and science “before and after the reform is no different from the difference during the same period for comparison schools.”

“Overall, the ASD schools exhibited similar growth to comparison schools receiving no interventions.”

In a statement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said, “We have not seen the success in the ASD that we want, and that is something we’re addressing.”

We “took the lessons we’ve learned from both the ASD and models like the Shelby County iZone, and it’s provided a framework for a more nuanced approach to how we do school improvement in our state,” she said.

Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the researchers, said the biggest difference between Tennessee’s state-run district and others like it is that the district is “managed by charter organizations but doesn’t act like charter organizations.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
This summer, GRAD Academy Memphis became the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis.

Unlike the Recovery School District in Louisiana, the Tennessee state-run district is required to serve students within its schools’ neighborhoods, Henry said. The Achievement School District sought to maintain neighborhood-based schools, where attendance is based on who is zoned to that school.

“When charter schools are based on choice, they can control entrance and exit in a way a neighborhood school can’t,” Henry said.

For example, some charters only accept students at the beginning of the school year, he said.

“In the ASD, you don’t have that competition or matching in place that may be the elements most crucial to some positive results we’ve seen in the Recovery School District,” he added.

The research brief is based on data collected from 2012 to 2017 including student and teacher demographics and student test scores from state exams and end-of-course exams.

The study is the latest in a series analyzing the state-run schools and iZones, published by researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA.  The research builds off of previous findings: iZone schools are improving students’ reading, math, and science test scores faster than state-run schools and low-achievement schools receiving no extra support.

Innovation zones are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, scheduling and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 24 Memphis schools in its turnaround program

Researchers compared “moderate to large” growth in iZone schools to that of other school intervention models throughout the nation, such as the School Redesign Grants model in Massachusetts and the state takeover in Lawrence Public Schools.

But Henry said that this week’s brief is the first study of its kind nationwide, and that the research comes down strongly in favor of iZone models.

“No studies across the county on turnaround have looked at long-term effects,” Henry said. “Here we see that the positive effects of the iZone are sustained, and therefore the iZone model is an evidence-based practice for school turnaround [nationwide]. If states want to adopt an iZone approach, they have the evidence to support it.”

On the other hand, Henry added, there’s also evidence that the Achievement School District’s original model isn’t producing results.

“The ASD approach of bringing in charter organizations to take over a school is not sufficient on its own to really improve student outcomes,” Henry said. “Other things need to be done in order to improve schools, such as recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders, and reducing chronic absenteeism.”

Seeking to turn its state-run district around, the Tennessee Department of Education recently hired Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the iZone schools in Memphis, to take over as chief of the district.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin started in her new role this month and told Chalkbeat that re-establishing the district’s credibility with the communities it serves is her first goal, as well as fostering collaboration, which she was known for in iZone schools.

The operators of state-run schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition. But the state department is banking on Griffin’s previous success to turn over a new page for the Achievement School District.

“Our ability to improve the lives of our students, as research suggests, depends on support and the ability of the adults within our schools,” Griffin said. “I’m excited for the ASD to work with local districts like Shelby County Schools to bridge the gaps together, to share best practices and professional development so regardless of where a student attends, we are meeting their needs.”

Griffin added that she’s focusing on how to better support and retain high-performing educators and leaders during her first months on the job.

The research alliance will continue to study the possible factors that may be influencing the impacts of the iZone and state-run district. According to its statement, researchers are planning to explore how much possible barriers to improvement such as teacher turnover, chronic absenteeism or principal turnover, have suppressed more positive effects of Tennessee’s turnaround interventions.

You can reach the research brief in full below:

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.