ASD Reset

Tennessee’s Achievement School District would return to its original purpose under a bill that its leaders support

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks in October to Memphis parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose one charter operator and get a new one at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district could soon get its wings clipped — and its leaders are among those calling for the changes.

Right now, the Achievement School District can both overhaul low-performing schools and start new schools. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the district from starting new schools and make it harder for the district to take over struggling schools.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The hope is that, with extra support, local districts will improve schools without the Achievement School District interceding.

Taken together, the two proposals would curtail the district’s ability to grow at a time when it already is closing schools. In recent months, two charter operators have backed out of schools within the district, pointing to a shrinking presence for the ASD regardless of whether the state changes its approach to school turnaround.

The bill’s wide support suggests that the aggressive approach originally taken by the ASD is falling out of favor.

State education officials say the proposed changes are meant to restore the state-run district to the purpose it was intended in 2010, when lawmakers created the ASD to take over schools that were so far gone that their districts couldn’t — or wouldn’t — improve them.

Read more about how the State Department of Education wants to change its approach to school turnaround work.

Starting in 2011, though, some charter operators tapped by the district were given the option to open new schools too.

Four operators used that option, and so far they have launched five new ASD schools. A sixth, from the national network Rocketship, is slated to open in Nashville this fall. It would be the ASD’s last new school if Hawk’s bill passes and the district’s work is limited to turnaround.

“That is the purpose of the work we’re doing; it is the purpose of the ASD,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “We need to clarify, so there’s no confusion.”

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rocketship’s new school will share space with a North Nashville church when it opens this fall. The school might be the ASD’s last new school start.

ASD officials say the new rules are necessary in part because of Memphis’s declining student enrollment — which is putting pressure on all local schools.

“We already have far too many school buildings for the number of students we have,” said Bobby S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs. “New starts have to come off the table, and we have to be comfortable with that.”

The bill came out of the State Education Department’s plan to comply with the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. A state spokeswoman confirmed that ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson helped to draft the school improvement part of the plan, including the language around the district she runs.

“We’re refining our focus,” White explained. “It is at some level informed by feedback and our own learning.”

The ASD underwent scrutiny last summer by lawmakers who had questions about the ASD’s purpose, effectiveness and end game. With the endorsement of state officials, the bill reining in the district is likely to become law. In that case, the ASD will have to revise its agreements with charter operators who have been told since 2011 that they can open new schools.

Such changes run the risk of shaking operators’ commitment to the state-run district at a time when two operators already have pulled the plug on one or more of their ASD schools. They also could potentially dissuade other charter operators from choosing to work in Tennessee.

Turnaround work is considered far more challenging than starting new charter schools. School leaders have a harder time establishing a school culture and also inherit challenges that led to the school’s low performance in the first place.

But White said all of the operators are aware of the possible changes. “We’ve not really had pushback,” he said.

McQueen said operators who are committed to the district’s mission shouldn’t be deterred.

“Our intention is to attract the operators who want to come in and … take schools that are in a community, take them with all grade levels at one time, and do this school turnaround work,” she 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.