Shake up

Rocketship becomes latest charter network to pull the plug on Tennessee’s Achievement School District

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students help each other in the learning lab of a Nashville charter school operated by Rocketship. The charter network announced plans this week to close another Nashville school operated under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Tennessee’s school turnaround district has had a rocky month, with two national charter networks announcing plans to close their schools and exit the Achievement School District.

Rocketship became the latest network to pull the plug when the California-based organization announced Thursday that it will shutter Partners Community Prep in Nashville at the end of the school year. The K-2 school just opened last fall, but only had 50 students enrolled. Leaders had hoped for 250.

Weeks earlier, Houston-based Project GRAD USA announced plans to close its Memphis high school this spring — also for enrollment reasons — effectively ending that network’s partnership with the ASD.

The exodus comes as Tennessee also seeks to reset the district that state lawmakers created in 2010 as a school turnaround agent. Both schools closing were started from scratch — a deviation from the district’s original model of taking control of low-performing schools and recruiting charter operators to turn them around.

Founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic allowed “new starts” as he sought to develop the district that launched in 2012, but the state stopped allowing them last year as part of its plan under a new federal education law. Rocketship’s Nashville school was the last to open as a new start.

Low enrollment plagued Partners Community Prep from the outset. Rocketship leaders said they were up against a state law requiring ASD schools to recruit 75 percent of their students from zones that contain “priority schools” that are academically in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

“We underestimated the viability of the ASD framework outlined in state law …,” according to a statement from Rocketship. “The challenges we faced reinforces why the state is redirecting its school improvement efforts on other strategies.”

Those new strategies emphasize partnering with local districts to develop school improvement plans together instead of wresting control of struggling schools from them.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the ASD will continue to be among Tennessee’s turnaround tools — but only as an intervention of last resort.

“We are completely committed to the work of the Achievement School District, and it is a key component of our comprehensive school improvement framework, which we codified in our plan to transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act,” McQueen said in a statement on Thursday. “The transitions we have made over the last few months have all been working to set the Achievement School District up for success and continued growth in the future.”

The closure of Partners Community Prep will be a first in Nashville for the state-run district and will leave two other ASD schools in the state’s capital city. The hub of the district’s work is in Memphis, where three state-run schools have closed, also due to challenges with enrollment.

With the exit of Rocketship and Project GRAD USA, the ASD will operate 30 schools in all at the end of the school year.

After last year’s restructuring of the district office and the departure of Superintendent Malika Anderson, interim leader Kathleen Airhart has sought to stabilize the ASD’s portfolio of schools and operators. Earlier Thursday, she announced plans to hand off the district’s operation of a Memphis middle school to a local charter network that already operates two state-run schools. That school will remain under the ASD’s oversight.

Rocketship will continue to operate two Nashville charter schools under Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Rocketship officials are hopeful that students at Partners will opt to attend Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary, which is four miles away, and said the operator will provide bus transportation for transferring students.

Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.