Charter move

Here are the losers as a Memphis charter school packs up and moves across town

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Derek King served as director of culture at Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt Middle School, which is relocating across town. He's among the faculty who won't make the move.

Edwina Hankins thought long and hard about where to send her son for his eighth-grade year.

A longtime resident of north Memphis, she was looking for a new start for Quinten, who struggled with grades while attending a traditional local school under Shelby County Schools. She also was concerned about reports of violence there.

So when the state took control of Quinten’s middle school last summer and chose Memphis Scholars to reopen it as a charter school, Hankins decided to take a chance and invest in the change.

“His Memphis Scholars grades started pretty rocky, but the teachers worked with him pretty great, and he did best he’s ever done,” she said of her family’s experience at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School.

Now Hankins is grappling with the reality that the charter school won’t be there for her elementary-age daughter when she reaches sixth grade, or for students who had planned to return this fall.

Memphis Scholars announced in late May that it’s leaving the Raleigh neighborhood it signed up to serve — and moving 16 miles across town to operate alongside the charter management organization’s Florida-Kansas Elementary School. It’s offering to bus Raleigh students every day to and from the new campus.

Officials at Memphis Scholars say they are just trying to be good stewards of scarce neighborhood resources that are spread too thin in Raleigh among several school turnaround programs. But the decision has frustrated students, parents, faculty and neighborhood leaders who had committed to the charter school when it opened last fall under Memphis Scholars.

“I referred people to that school …,” Hankins said in an exasperated tone. “I assumed they would be in our neighborhood for the long haul.”

The school’s faculty are equally disappointed. They learned about the move during the last week of classes, and were told they would have to reapply for a fewer number of spots. Only three educators have taken Memphis Scholars up on that offer, according to charter organization leaders.

“Moving to Florida-Kansas was a business decision,” said Derek King, who opted not to reapply for his job as director of culture and football coach. “It had nothing to do with the kids. Teachers and parents feel like this wasn’t given a real chance. We were only here a year.”

The cross-town relocation is the latest in a series of strategic moves that began after the state-run Achievement School District took control of the low-performing middle school last summer and picked Memphis Scholars to step in. Seeking to retain both students and funding, Shelby County Schools then added middle school grades next door at Raleigh-Egypt High School, which shares a campus with the Memphis Scholars school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A red line on a hallway floor is designed to separate middle school students from those in upper grades at the newly reconfigured Raleigh-Egypt High School.

That set up a peculiar arrangement in which both schools — one operated by the state, and one by the local district — were seeking to enroll the same middle school students from the Raleigh community. By the end of its first school year, Memphis Scholars had 189 students enrolled, only half of the number it was aiming for, making it difficult to fund the kind of expensive supports needed for school turnaround work.

Memphis Scholars Director Nick Patterson said the nail in the coffin came this spring when Shelby County Schools announced plans to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School into the district’s Innovation Zone, another turnaround program. That plan created “two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” he said.

The charter operator entered a month of talks with the ASD and the State Department of Education, which approved the cross-town move — effectively closing Raleigh-Egypt Middle and providing a middle school option for elementary-age students at Florida-Kansas to stay with Memphis Scholars.

Whether or not that sticks is up in the air. Leaders for Shelby County Schools say Memphis Scholars can’t just pick up and move to another building where they already had tried unsuccessfully to add grades. The district is exploring legal options to keep that from happening.

“It’s one thing for the ASD to say we don’t like the school building. … We’re going to move a block away and still service that community,” said Rodney Moore, legal counsel for Shelby County Schools. “But nobody in their right mind can believe they have any interest in serving the Raleigh-Egypt community. They’ve essentially indicated that they want to take away the academic resources from that school building, move it across town, which is essentially robbing that community of valuable resources.”

Patterson says the move complies with state law and makes sense given the decision by Shelby County Schools to move Raleigh-Egypt Middle-High School to the iZone.

“Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools,” he said in announcing the move.

As for a potential legal challenge, Patterson is optimistic it won’t come to that. “Our hope is this situation is resolved quickly so students and families can start school as they’ve been planning to do,” he said.

Even though the relocated school will no longer be in Raleigh, Memphis Scholars plans to keep the school’s Raleigh-Egypt name — to avoid confusion, according to Patterson.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
The school building being left behind will stand empty this fall.

But confusion lingers for students and parents who feel left behind in Raleigh, many of whom didn’t find out their school was moving until well into the summer.

“This is the first time I’m hearing of the school moving …,” said Amber Knox, a mother of two rising seventh-graders, last month. “But I can tell you they won’t be attending next year. That’s way too far. They’re going to inconvenience a lot of parents.”

Patterson said Memphis Scholars is working with parent groups like Memphis Lift and Fathers & Education to make sure all parents are informed about the move and the transportation option.

Still, several outgoing teachers think it’s more likely that parents will choose another school, just as most faculty members are.

“It was a sudden shock for the teachers, but also for the whole neighborhood,” said Angela Moore, who taught sixth grade for Memphis Scholars. “I have students still calling (and) asking me where they should go to school. There’s a lot of confusion, because a lot of parents still don’t know the school is closing and moving. I’m trying to figure out how parents are going to know about a bus when they didn’t even tell parents they were closing.”

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]