Warning List

Is your school in Tennessee’s bottom 10 percent? Here’s a list of 166 schools the state says need to improve

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

Struggling Tennessee schools will find out this fall if they’ll face consequences for scoring academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

The State Department of Education is scheduled to release its long-awaited “priority list” for the first time since 2014, identifying schools that will be eligible for some level of intervention.

But first, the department has issued a warning list to let schools in the bottom 10 percent know where they stand. The so-called “cusp list” of 166 schools is based on standardized test results for 2016-17 and, for high schools, state, and ACT test results.

Here are three things to know about the warning list, followed by the list itself.

1) The state’s turnaround district is struggling to move schools out of the bottom 5 percent, while the Innovation Zone in Memphis is having some success.  

More than half of the Achievement School District’s 32 schools fall in the bottom percentile, including the six that were first taken over by the state-run district in 2012 with the goal of turning them around in five years. Of that initial group, Brick Church College Preparatory in Nashville moved out of the priority threshold two years ago — but is back in the bottom 5 percent on the latest warning list. A bright spot is Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary in Memphis, which not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom tenth. In 2016, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

The iZone, another turnaround initiative started in 2012 through Shelby County Schools, has three out of its original eight Memphis schools moving out of the bottom 10 percent: Ford Road Elementary, Douglass K-8 and Chickasaw Middle.

2) The priority school range has fewer schools in Memphis and more in Nashville this time around.

Of the 166 schools on the latest list, Shelby County Schools has 26 schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent, compared to 43 on the last cusp list in 2016. However, of the state’s ten worst-performing schools, six are overseen by the Memphis district, including three charters run by the W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools, founded by former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Willie Herenton.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools saw an uptick of schools in the lowest percentile: 21 schools in the bottom 5 percent, up from 15 schools on the 2016 list.

Still, Nashville, Memphis and state districts dominate the bottom 5 percent, followed by Chattanooga with eight schools and Jackson with three. Knox, Fayette, Maury, Sumner, and Cumberland county districts all have one school each.

3) This isn’t the official priority list, but it’s a good indicator. Here’s what happens to schools that stay in the bottom 5 percent.

While schools on the priority list used to be automatically eligible for state takeover by the Achievement School District, that’s no longer the case under Tennessee’s new school improvement plan developed in response to a 2016 federal law. Tennessee has broadened its scope of possible interventions, making state takeover by the ASD a path of last resort. In most cases, the state’s new office of school improvement will work with local districts to craft their plans, which will then be monitored by the state.

Charter schools are the exception. State law mandates that districts shutter ones that make the priority list. Based on the warning list, eight charters authorized by Shelby County Schools could be in danger if they don’t significantly improve their state scores this spring, while none in Nashville are.

The list below is searchable by 2017 percentile rank, school name, and district.

Schools on the 2017 Cusp List

*Clinch River Community School and The Excel Center are no longer considered to be on the cusp list given classification changes.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.