Wanting the ball

Why one Memphis charter operator thinks it can save an ASD school from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White makes his pitch to run Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School before community members and leaders of the state's Achievement School District.

Bobby White believes his charter organization has what it takes to save one of the state’s sinking turnaround schools in Memphis.

White says his Frayser Community Schools managed to grow enrollment of MLK College Preparatory High by 24 percent since taking charge of the Memphis school in 2014. He believes he can do the same for Humes Preparatory Academy Middle, another state-run school whose enrollment shrank by 13 percent last year alone.

The Memphis-based charter organization founded by White is the only operator that’s stepped forward and applied to succeed Gestalt Community Schools as overseer of Humes.

The state’s Achievement School District held a community meeting Wednesday night at the school to examine the application and ask questions of White and his team. About 40 people attended, and most questions centered around whether Frayser could bear the expense of running a second school, especially with Humes’ low enrollment.

If the ASD approves Frayser’s bid, the organization will have to grow the school’s enrollment while also turning it around academically — a challenge that Gestalt leaders said they had not been able to meet in five years of operating Humes.

Humes has just over 300 students in a space meant for 900 and is located in North Memphis, where the school-age population has decreased in recent years and forced Shelby County Schools to shutter Northside High School last year.

But White, a former Memphis City Schools principal, believes he can use the same recruitment strategies at Humes that helped his organization grow MLK to 640 students. Those include recruitment booths in grocery stores and community centers, targeted phone calls, and home visits.

“Representatives from the school will conduct promotional activities by speaking at those elementary schools that will feed into Humes,” according to Frayser’s application. “As a follow-up, FCS administrators, staff and volunteers will make neighborhood visits to areas likely to have high school aged children and knock on doors, distribute flyers and have informal conversations about the school.”

Currently, MLK is the only school operated by Frayser Community Schools, but White has said he wants to grow the organization. MLK’s state test scores have not improved, especially in math, but the school received an overall composite achievement score of 4 out of 5, and raised its ACT average by 1.6 points to 16.

Although Frayser is the only operator to apply, ASD officials say it’s not guaranteed a match. Leaders hope to have a decision by Feb. 1 after gauging public opinion and looking at Frayser’s application and data.

There’s also a chance that Humes could close. ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson announced earlier this week that Gestalt’s other state-run school, Klondike Preparatory Academy Middle, will close at the end of this school year. Anderson said that, just as with Klondike, the ASD would work with Shelby County Schools to reassign students to nearby schools if it decides to shutter Humes.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Frayser’s application for Humes, and the public hearing:

Building a neighborhood school.

White expects Humes would see an initial decrease, from 310 to 265 students, during the transition. But within five years, enrollment is projected to grow back to 300.

Humes would be marketed as a neighborhood school, which historically has been a pillar of the city’s public education system. Under state law, ASD schools also are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of students from outside of their neighborhoods. But Frayser’s recruitment focus would be on students in the traditional zone, similar to its approach at MLK.

“What we did, in year one (for Humes), was we decided we were not going to count anything other than students that are currently zoned in the community,” White told Chalkbeat. “As we build a brand, two things will happen. When you start to build pride in community schools, the children who are currently in the neighborhood who are attending other schools will notice. We’re counting on that. We’re also counting on keeping kids who are current 5th graders in the neighborhood.”

Cut expenses, seek philanthropic support.

Gestalt leaders said their impending pullout is necessary because Humes’ student enrollment and related funding can’t pay for the supports needed to turn the school around. Frayser says it can run a leaner machine, albeit one that relies heavily on foundation dollars.

Frayser expects to receive $100,000 in philanthropic support from local organizations and foundations such as Pyramid Peak, Hyde Family and Poplar, according to its financial summary.

White said his team has run the numbers based on an enrollment ranging from 260 to 300 students, and that his charter operation could stay in the black.

ASD officials asked the Frayser team about their plan if philanthropic dollars fall through.

“We do depend on philanthropy and have done so in past,” said Jeffrey Gayhart, who is in charge of finances for Frayser. “We do feel very confident that the $100,000 in the budget is understated. If philanthropy doesn’t come through, Mr. White and I would comb through the budget and prioritize items that could be cut, especially those that don’t affect student outcomes.”

Teachers and staff

Humes principal John Crutchfield would be retained, which would help ease the transition and community-building process. Teachers would have to reapply for 24 positions expected during the first year, but any teacher recommended by Crutchfield would get priority.

Those not coming on board would be provided the information for next steps as well but would be expected to stay for the duration of the current school year,” according to Frayser’s application. “Although we do not anticipate teachers not returning, we do have a pool of qualified substitutes to ensure proper coverage in case there is a number of folks who resign and capable replacements cannot be secured before the year ends.”

Teacher pay at Humes would take a hit — a projected decrease that prompted Anderson to ask how Frayser planned to retain highly effective teachers when “the proposed salaries look very different than what’s currently at this school.”

“When people apply, that’s when we’ll have a better understanding of what we’ll be able to do,” White answered.

The meeting allowed people to ask questions of both ASD and Frayser leaders. Several spoke in support of Frayser Community Schools, including Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love, who has children who attend MLK.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details from Wednesday night’s community meeting.

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]