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 tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

measuring up

After five years, the Tennessee-run district isn’t performing any better than low-performing schools receiving no intervention, research says

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

After five years of trying to turn around low-performing schools, Tennessee’s state-run schools aren’t performing any better than schools that haven’t received any intervention, according to new research released Tuesday.

But locally controlled low-achieving districts called Innovation Zones have not only improved performance — as shown in other studies —  but have sustained those improvements over five years.

That time period is seen as a significant marker because previous research has found it can take up to five years to see improvement from school interventions. Both the state-run district and the local iZones were launched 6 years ago.

Tennessee is seen as a leader in turnaround work around the nation. The state-run district began taking over schools in 2012, saying it would vault 5 percent of the state’s 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 in Memphis and Nashville, and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around.

But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students, retain high-quality teachers, and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 30.

The study compared Tennessee’s state-run district with other low-performing schools statewide and found that average test scores in reading, math, and science “before and after the reform is no different from the difference during the same period for comparison schools.”

“Overall, the ASD schools exhibited similar growth to comparison schools receiving no interventions.”

In a statement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said, “We have not seen the success in the ASD that we want, and that is something we’re addressing.”

We “took the lessons we’ve learned from both the ASD and models like the Shelby County iZone, and it’s provided a framework for a more nuanced approach to how we do school improvement in our state,” she said.

Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the researchers, said the biggest difference between Tennessee’s state-run district and others like it is that the district is “managed by charter organizations but doesn’t act like charter organizations.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
This summer, GRAD Academy Memphis became the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis.

Unlike the Recovery School District in Louisiana, the Tennessee state-run district is required to serve students within its schools’ neighborhoods, Henry said. The Achievement School District sought to maintain neighborhood-based schools, where attendance is based on who is zoned to that school.

“When charter schools are based on choice, they can control entrance and exit in a way a neighborhood school can’t,” Henry said.

For example, some charters only accept students at the beginning of the school year, he said.

“In the ASD, you don’t have that competition or matching in place that may be the elements most crucial to some positive results we’ve seen in the Recovery School District,” he added.

The research brief is based on data collected from 2012 to 2017 including student and teacher demographics and student test scores from state exams and end-of-course exams.

The study is the latest in a series analyzing the state-run schools and iZones, published by researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA.  The research builds off of previous findings: iZone schools are improving students’ reading, math, and science test scores faster than state-run schools and low-achievement schools receiving no extra support.

Innovation zones are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, scheduling 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 24 Memphis schools in its turnaround program

Researchers compared “moderate to large” growth in iZone schools to that of other school intervention models throughout the nation, such as the School Redesign Grants model in Massachusetts and the state takeover in Lawrence Public Schools.

But Henry said that this week’s brief is the first study of its kind nationwide, and that the research comes down strongly in favor of iZone models.

“No studies across the county on turnaround have looked at long-term effects,” Henry said. “Here we see that the positive effects of the iZone are sustained, and therefore the iZone model is an evidence-based practice for school turnaround [nationwide]. If states want to adopt an iZone approach, they have the evidence to support it.”

On the other hand, Henry added, there’s also evidence that the Achievement School District’s original model isn’t producing results.

“The ASD approach of bringing in charter organizations to take over a school is not sufficient on its own to really improve student outcomes,” Henry said. “Other things need to be done in order to improve schools, such as recruiting and retaining teachers and leaders, and reducing chronic absenteeism.”

Seeking to turn its state-run district around, the Tennessee Department of Education recently hired Sharon Griffin, the former leader of the iZone schools in Memphis, to take over as chief of the district.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin started in her new role this month and told Chalkbeat that re-establishing the district’s credibility with the communities it serves is her first goal, as well as fostering collaboration, which she was known for in iZone schools.

The operators of state-run 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. But the state department is banking on Griffin’s previous success to turn over a new page for the Achievement School District.

“Our ability to improve the lives of our students, as research suggests, depends on support and the ability of the adults within our schools,” Griffin said. “I’m excited for the ASD to work with local districts like Shelby County Schools to bridge the gaps together, to share best practices and professional development so regardless of where a student attends, we are meeting their needs.”

Griffin added that she’s focusing on how to better support and retain high-performing educators and leaders during her first months on the job.

The research alliance will continue to study the possible factors that may be influencing the impacts of the iZone and state-run district. According to its statement, researchers are planning to explore how much possible barriers to improvement such as teacher turnover, chronic absenteeism or principal turnover, have suppressed more positive effects of Tennessee’s turnaround interventions.

You can reach the research brief in full below:

NEXT LEADER

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.