Outgoing ASD chief reflects on Tennessee’s school turnaround journey

Malika Anderson began working with Tennessee's Achievement School District in 2011 and has served as its superintendent since January of 2016. She will step down at the end of September.

One of the first leaders recruited to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Malika Anderson helped to usher in a school turnaround model aimed at cutting out central bureaucracy and moving decision-making closer to the classroom.

As she leaves the state-run district five years later, that turnaround strategy remains mostly intact — but the thinking has changed about the best vehicle for accomplishing it.

Anderson talked with Chalkbeat about the changes after her impending departure was announced on Wednesday by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“For the ASD, we will continue to serve as an intervention option, but we’re no longer the only state intervention option,” Anderson said.

The Achievement School District, which launched in the Race to the Top era by taking control of low-performing neighborhood schools and converting them to charter schools, is now taking a back seat to more localized interventions that are supported or prodded by the state. It’s all part of the shift to more district control under Tennessee’s school improvement plan in response to the federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Anderson will end her two-year tenure as superintendent at the end of this month and plans to take a break before getting back into education, possibly as a consultant.

“Any educator or advocate in school turnaround will tell you, a single year is like a dog year. It takes a lot out of you,” she said.

In a Q&A with Chalkbeat, the outgoing superintendent reflects on what she learned while working with the ASD — and what advice she would give her successor. Her answers have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You just got a new leadership team into place. Why leave now?

I’m making this transition now because we just completed a summer-long complete reorganization of the district with a new leadership team, a new staff, a new charge under the state’s ESSA school improvement plan. It’s now about preparing the ASD to move into the future with greater efficacy and sustainability. I’ve done the hard work of preparing for that transition, and I’m ready to pass the baton to the next leader to take it forward. It was my decision. I gave Candice [McQueen] notice about two weeks ago.

What have you and the ASD learned about school turnaround work in the five years of the district’s existence?

How important the political, economic and social support structures for schools, operators and districts are to enable their success. This is not an either/or thing of focusing on great teachers or focusing on poverty. It’s absolutely all of it and all at once. (This) requires significantly more investment of time, resources and coordination of priorities than I certainly went into this understanding.

Also, the impact of poverty. We cannot say that poverty does matter and then not put the supports in place to address symptoms of it.

What are you most proud of in your time at the helm?

I am most proud of the fact that schools that had been rated Fs by the State Department of Education over a decade ago — and hadn’t made any progress even when standards were of lower rigor —  are now getting the attention they deserve. We’re talking about those schools now. That’s huge.

What do you wish you could have accomplished that you didn’t?

I wish that I could have eliminated the Memphis vs. Nashville tension and competition. I really thought that when we were collectively focused on addressing needs of most vulnerable students in priority schools in new ways, that it would have taken us further down the road of deprioritizing many of historical conflicts that arise between Nashville and Memphis.

Those conflicts made it harder for us to do our work. There was political noise that distracted our educators from their core work. They can’t focus on their work when we’re fighting about zoning, student contact information or equitable access for facilities. That is such a distraction and a systematic distraction to our work that I wish I would have been able to more significantly reduce in the last five years.

How significant has Tennessee’s ESSA plan been in rethinking the ASD’s role for school turnaround work in the future?

Very significant. ESSA really prioritizes district empowerment and local control. There is a return to investing more time in district intervening themselves in their schools. (This) means that for the ASD, we will continue to serve as an intervention option, but we’re no longer the only state intervention option. We served as many as six to eight new schools a year and, going forward, the growth of the ASD will be smaller as we support the success of local school districts intervening themselves in their priority schools.

What’s your advice for the ASD’s next leader?

Know and honor the history of the communities that you are serving. There is a hell of a lot of good there, right? And there are warriors who have been fighting this battle on behalf of their kids for generations that should be included instead of us coming in as white knight to save the day.

Also, to maintain exceptionally high expectations for what our kids can do. When we hit challenges, or don’t see the outside gains that we all want for our kids in a very short time, some people could start to lower expectations for what’s possible for our kids, that’s the wrong move. We have to keep expectations high and adjust our own perceptions and resources to help our kids, who we know get there.


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.