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.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”