Tennessee’s turnaround district is about to return a school to its local district — but it’s just a building

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students leave Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary in December. The state-run charter school in North Memphis will close this month at the end of the school year.

For the first time, the Achievement School District is working with a local district to return a school that the state took over with the promise of an academic turnaround — but not because it’s delivering on that pledge.

Almost four years after taking control of Klondike Elementary, the ASD will close the Memphis school this month after its charter operator exits due to low enrollment.

That means Shelby County Schools will be figuring out what to do with a mostly empty building, not a revitalized school, when Klondike returns to its fold this summer.

That wasn’t the plan when the state-run district took control of the North Memphis school in 2013. For all the upheaval generated by the ASD’s heavy-handed takeover approach, the vision was high-minded: Shake up chronically low-performing schools by bringing in high-quality charter operators to turn things around quickly, then return the schools to their local district to raise the community’s bar for public education.

But in North Memphis, where the school-age population has been in decline, the order was taller than expected by leaders of the ASD and its Memphis-based charter operator for Klondike. As student enrollment dropped steadily and hit under 200 this school year, it became prohibitive to put in place the academic supports necessary for turnaround, according to the CEO of Gestalt Community Schools. State and local leaders concurred, announcing plans to close Klondike as its students are assigned this fall to another low-performing school.

That makes Klondike’s transition back to Shelby County Schools more about real estate than education, adding another distraction to a local district that’s already drowning in building-related costs. The property will join a growing inventory of empty and repurposed buildings — former schools that have been shuttered over decades due to shrinking enrollment, poor academic performance, and high maintenance costs.

Real estate is part of the delicate partnership that the state-run district has with the local school system.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The North Memphis school has been in the ASD since 2013.

The majority of the ASD’s 31 Memphis schools are turnaround schools that once were operated by the local district. At least 20 are housed in buildings still owned by Shelby County Schools. Under state law, when the ASD takes control of a local school, it’s responsible for students and teachers, but not the building itself. Neither the state-run district, nor its charter operators, pay rent or cover large capital needs such as a new roof.

This summer after Gestalt exits, members of Shelby County Schools’ facilities team will assess the condition of Klondike’s building and inventory its contents, similar to what they did in 2013 when turning over the school to the ASD under a state order. They’ll find a building needing about $2.7 million in repairs, according to 2016 district report. That’s all on Shelby County Schools, which already has a backlog of maintenance needs totaling $476 million.

Klondike is a historic neighborhood school, tracing its roots to a 1902 building where African-American children were educated. Its next iteration — and whether that will involve public education — is uncertain.

For now, the district has renewed its lease for one section of Klondike with Perea Preschool, a private Christian school that will serve more than 160 children in a building designed for more than 600.

“We’re excited (Perea Preschool) can stay in the building,” said Billy Orgel, who chairs the school board’s facilities committee. “It’s a much better use of space than it standing empty.”

Perea also has applied to open a charter school at Klondike under Shelby County Schools to serve elementary-age students with a focus on social-emotional learning. The school board will make a decision by August.

For their part, ASD leaders acknowledge that returning a school building isn’t the same thing as returning a school. But it’s necessary, they say, when a school operation can’t be sustained. They also remain optimistic about fulfilling their mission at other state-run schools, even as many struggle with enrollment, too.

“The DNA of the ASD is to return schools to their home district. That wasn’t the case with Klondike, but we’re struggling with a citywide problem … of too many school buildings and not enough kids,” said Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the ASD. “But the ultimate goal of the ASD — and what we’re striving for every day — is to hand back these schools when they are able to make it off of the priority list. That’s a win for us.”

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of 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 and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 33.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic 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 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD 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.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.

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.