Charter reset

Memphis education leaders are liking Tennessee’s charter school bill, despite having little initial input

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
The Tennessee Charter School Center hosted its fifth annual enrollment fair in March in Memphis. Tennessee has 107 charter schools, 71 of which are in Memphis.

Education leaders in Memphis have worked for several years to forge a delicate coalition for addressing thorny challenges that come with having the state’s fastest-growing charter sector.

So some were surprised when the State Department of Education didn’t consult them while working to overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law with a bill now winding through the legislature. Only after the bill was introduced this winter did the state seek input from charter operators, local districts and advocacy groups.

That’s protocol for the State Department, which generally writes bills based on questions and experiences collected over time from districts and schools. “It’s just the way that the administration drafts bills. … They never share bill language until it’s introduced,” spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said last week.

But the process frustrated some Memphis leaders who had no knowledge that sweeping changes were in the works.

“It seemed like someone should have reached out to Shelby County Schools,” said school board member Stephanie Love.

Love and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first heard about the proposed overhaul in February while visiting the State Capitol to lobby against a school voucher bill in the legislature. Now that she’s reviewed the measure, Love believes the proposal is aligned with the direction of charter policies in the state’s largest district. “There may be some things I don’t like, but I believe it’s workable,” she said.

Members of the 26-member Memphis charter coalition say they’re also fairly pleased with the proposal, and they agree it’s long overdue. It’s also obvious from suggested revisions that state leaders were paying attention to conversations already happening in Shelby County.

Among the bill’s provisions are an annual fee paid by charter operators to local districts to help pay for the sector’s oversight; adopting national standards for reviewing applications; and creating a detailed evaluation and revocation process — all issues that Memphis district and charter leaders have been sorting out with local solutions since they began working together last year.

Luther Mercer, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s time for the state’s law to be fine-tuned as is charter sector grows up and deals with difficult issues such as accountability, funding and facilities.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, co-chairs Shelby County Schools’ charter advisory committee.

“The bill is meant to close loopholes and bring more of a framework for charters and districts to work under,” said Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Tennessee’s charter school law has had few changes since its passage in 2002, but the state’s charter sector has mushroomed to 107 schools, including 71 in Memphis. Nashville has the second-largest pool with 30 schools.

Titled the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act, the bill would give local districts the authorizer fee they have clamored for and would require them to adopt national standards in their processes. In recent months, Memphis operators have shown a willingness to pay that fee, especially as the district’s charter office committed to standards by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Districts also would have to come up with a detailed process for revoking underperforming charter schools and a framework for outlining academic requirements for charter schools. In Memphis, fuzziness over the district’s standards resulted last year in several district-charter battles that were appealed to the State Board of Education. Ultimately, Shelby County Schools won those appeals, but not before members of the State Board chastised the district for its lack of policy clarity. The Memphis coalition has since agreed on a detailed revocation process.

Under the bill, the state must have a similar evaluation system to track achievement gaps between historically underserved student groups, financial management, and student readiness for life after high school.

It also would establish a fund to help charter operators lease or buy and improve deteriorating buildings, which is one of their biggest expenses.

One provision would require local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request and prohibits those schools from sharing that information with third parties without consent. The provision would address complaints by Memphis charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District, who charged last year that the local district withheld student data that would help them to register students zoned for their schools. It also would give a nod to Shelby County Schools, which accused the state-run district of giving that information over to Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that contacted parents about school performance data.

Brad Leon, whose office oversees charters in Shelby County Schools, declined to comment about the charter school bill. However, others on the committee say the synergy between the proposal and their work in Memphis is encouraging.

“I think it should enhance the work,” said Brittany Monda, executive director Memphis College Prep.

Below is a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education about how it went about getting input from across the state to draft and revise the bill:

“One of our duties at the department is to listen to the issues that are important to the Tennessee education community, and throughout this year we heard from districts, operators, advocates, etc., about the issues that matter most to them, including those involving charter schools in Tennessee.

Based on questions and experiences we have heard from districts and schools over the past few years, and based on vagueness in some provisions of the current charter law, the department drafted a comprehensive charter school bill. After the High-Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced, we sought feedback from a wide group of stakeholders and drafted a new amendment based on that feedback.

To gather feedback, the commissioner held a call that all charter operators and all charter authorizers were invited to join. Additionally, advocacy groups like TOSS, TSBA, Tennessee Charter School Center, TennesseeCAN, and Tennesseans for Student Success provided feedback that we took into consideration. We feel the legislation in its current form reflects the input of all stakeholders and will help strengthen the charter sector in Tennessee.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: