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]

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.

Movers and shakers

Meet the interim leader of Tennessee’s school turnaround district

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought a temporary chief for Tennessee’s Achievement School District, she turned to a behind-the-scenes administrator who is well-versed about the unique turnaround district.

Kathleen Airhart

As deputy commissioner and chief operations officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, Kathleen Airhart has played a pivotal role in overhauling the ASD in recent months. She’s overseen operational adjustments following ASD audits, and she’s also been part of the planning team that has sought to get the state-run district back on financial footing. 

Now Airhart will step in as interim superintendent, filling the shoes of Malika Anderson, who is stepping down at the end of this month after almost two years as the ASD’s leader. 

While Tennessee looks for a replacement for Anderson, Airhart will seek to steady the rudder of the ASD following a summertime reshuffling that included cutting its staff in half and hiring a new leadership team. The changes were made to bring financial stability to the district, which was created in 2011 through Tennessee’s now-depleted federal Race to the Top award.

“Given her strong background in both academics and operations, and given her familiarity with the work of the ASD and the transitions it has been through, she was a natural fit to lead the district and support the new leadership team during our search for a new superintendent,” McQueen said.

Airhart says she’s ready for the task.

“I am committed to moving this work forward and supporting the ASD team while it makes key improvements in strategies to serve our students,” she said.

A former Tennessee Superintendent of the Year, Airhart has been deputy commissioner with the state since 2012. She’s also been a teacher, special education supervisor and superintendent of schools in Putnam County.

With 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville, the ASD seeks to turn around low-performing schools by assigning them to operators that convert them to charter schools.