Tennessee’s school turnaround district might lose some power. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Malika Anderson was named superintendent of the Achievement School District in 2015 at the State Capitol, where she was flanked by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is making big changes to the way it addresses its lowest-performing schools, with big implications for its pioneering state turnaround district — and for the local urban districts where struggling schools are concentrated.

The state’s Achievement School District has wielded significant power in Tennessee since its launch in 2012, wresting control of 33 schools from local districts, recruiting charter operators to turn them around, and generating rancorous debate in the process. The school improvement model has been closely watched across the nation and is being emulated in states such as Nevada and North Carolina.

But under changes prompted by a new federal education law, Tennessee’s ASD would have less flexibility over which schools it can take over, while local districts would have more time to turn around the schools themselves. State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen estimated Monday that, under the new plan, at least 12 schools would be eligible for state takeover in the 2017-18 school year, down from 18 in 2015.

Memphis would be the city most impacted since it’s home to the greatest number of “priority schools” — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent — as well as nearly all of the ASD’s schools.

Under the new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Tennessee must give local districts the opportunity to improve priority schools on their own before swooping in with its most rigorous intervention: ASD takeover.

The state’s takeover of neighborhood schools has been especially contentious in Memphis, particularly after a 2015 Vanderbilt University study suggested that students at ASD schools are performing mostly at the same low levels that they would have had they remained with their local district.

The State Department of Education unveiled a preview of its proposed plan for ESSA last week, which touches on issues like accountability, school counselors, and teacher preparation, in addition to school improvement. State officials will gather feedback on the draft during town hall meetings in Memphis on Wednesday and in Nashville on Thursday, and submit Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring.

Here’s what we know about the school improvement part of the plan:

What will happen to priority schools, and which ones will be eligible for ASD takeover?

Tennessee’s proposed plan would separate the state’s priority list into three tracks.

Schools will be on the first track if they meet two conditions:

  • They are on at least one of the previous priority lists, in 2012 and 2014, as well as the 2017 priority list coming out this summer;
  • They have had the same intervention, like becoming part of the district’s innovation zone, for three or more years without improvement according to criteria to be set by the state, or have had no intervention at all.

The second track will consist of schools on the 2017 list and at least one earlier list, but that have high growth scores. These schools will have until 2020, when the state will release the next priority list, to continue their turnaround work without the possibility of ASD intervention.

The third track will consist of schools on the priority list for the first time in 2017. They will enter an unprecedented partnership with the state, working to draft and implement a turnaround plan based on national research and evidence. The hope is that by 2020, the plan will have worked, and they will be off of the priority list.

Though districts will have more power in school turnaround, McQueen emphasizes that the state will be an active partner.

“This is not the district on its own,” she said. “There would be a great deal of state partnership in terms of planning, and state criteria to be met.”

What will happen to low-performing schools already in the ASD?

McQueen said she hears that question a lot from local district leaders but doesn’t have an answer for them yet. She said the state is working to address the issue, which was the topic of a state legislative hearing this summer.

The question is important because the ASD’s effect on schools has been uneven. Many of the ASD’s first schools, taken from local districts in 2012, are still in the bottom 5 percent, according to the most recently available test scores.

Currently, only the ASD has authority over its own schools. Under state law, if an ASD charter operator underperforms for three consecutive years, the state-run district can replace them with a higher-performing operator.

“Of course, you can’t do that indefinitely, so we will be making clear exit criteria as well,” McQueen said. “Some of this will be evolving, based on what we learn about the schools.”

How will 2017’s priority list be different than in years past?

The state’s priority list has been based on a ranking of schools by the percentage of students who passed end-of-year tests for math, English and science. But under Tennessee’s proposed plan, the state wants to take growth into account.

That way, “you’re not doomed to be a priority school just because you’re in the bottom 5 percent according to achievement,” said Nakia Towns, assistant state commissioner of research.

Because of a 2015 state law, priority schools will also get a new label: F. Beginning next fall, all Tennessee schools will be assigned a letter grade based on several criteria. As the lowest performing schools, priority schools will receive automatic Fs.

Some educators worry that the school grading system, which was not endorsed by the State Department of Education, might further stigmatize schools that already are struggling. State officials hope to offset that by giving priority schools more resources and support through direct funding and competitive grants.

“We realize it’s often the poorest communities who will have schools with the lowest grade — but who will also need those resources,” Towns said.


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.