When Superintendent Dorsey Hopson allotted extra funding last year for more than a dozen low-performing Memphis schools, the idea was to provide more resources and a chance for improvement before making any decisions about closing them.

After all, Shelby County Schools has learned a lot about how to improve academics at struggling schools through its own Innovation Zone, a school turnaround program that invests significant resources and even lengthens the school day to try to change a school’s trajectory.

But a new state intervention plan outlined this month by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen would stop Hopson’s “critical focus” plan in its tracks for one school.

McQueen is recommending that the district close Hawkins Mill Elementary because of low test performance and enrollment, a decision reinforced by a recent school visit from state officials.

Her recommendation comes just as Hawkins Mill Principal Antonio Harvey is in the first year of rolling out a school improvement plan that includes several new hires, team projects, and a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering, and math.

School board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes the Frayser school, said the state should focus on how to support the work already happening there.

“They have a plan in place. The school year is not over,” Love told Chalkbeat. “Before this recent test, the school was improving. Yes, it did dip with the new test, but the whole district dipped.”

The divergent plans set the stage for another potential showdown between local and state officials over the best way to address a chronically underperforming school. While the state is seeking to work more collaboratively with local leaders, McQueen’s plan shows that the state will get a greater say in interventions already in place.

Shelby County’s school board is scheduled to revisit parts of the state’s plan on Tuesday evening after discussing it last week for the first time.

Memphis public schools have had an especially rocky relationship with the State Department of Education since 2012 when Tennessee’s turnaround district launched and began taking over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigning them to charter operators to turn around.

Candice McQueen
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

But the state’s new accountability plan, developed in response to a 2015 federal education law, is meant to empower local districts with time and resources to improve academics. That would slow down state’s heavy-handed method that has been the norm for the last six years.

In most ways, the state is staying true to its new commitment. Across Tennessee, only one school — American Way Middle, also in Memphis — is on track for charter conversion through the state-run Achievement School District, compared to five the state recommended in 2015. And for the first time in the ASD’s history, the state is giving Shelby County Schools the option of bringing on its own charter operator for American Way instead of relying on the ASD.

As for Hawkins Mill, there are a lot of unknowns under Tennessee’s new era of school improvement. It’s unclear if Hopson’s critical focus plan meets the state’s standard of a “recognized, evidence-based intervention” that allows for more leeway from the state. And it’s unclear how much progress Hawkins Mill has made so far. Last week, district officials were not immediately able to provide data from the school’s ongoing assessments that are designed to show growth prior to students taking state tests this spring.

(Under Hopson’s critical focus plan, in order to avoid closure in three years, Hawkins Mill and others would need to score between a 3 and 5 on the district’s new grading system for schools and increase enrollment to at least 70 percent capacity.)

Either way, since McQueen’s recommendations were mostly based on data up until last school year, any progress at Hawkins Mill this year would not carry as much weight. Plus, the school already had been considered for state takeover in 2015. One major factor is that the school has had the same principal for more than three years — generally enough time to chart a change in a school’s trajectory, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees school improvement initiatives for the district.

State spokeswoman Sara Gast cited multiple factors for the department’s recommendation, “including two cycles on the Priority school list, data that indicates it will be on the Priority school list again in 2018, discussions with the district, and the school’s enrollment.”

“We continue to affirm this recommendation,” she said.

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, said the school has had enough time.

“It is time for Hawkins Mill to close because for years, it has failed to educate our students. Some I know have left the elementary school not knowing how to read,” she said in a statement. “More money will not turn around this failing school, and we can’t allow bad schools to stay open when it costs our kids their education.”

But the decision to close has to come from the school board, since the state only has the power to recommend that action. Some school board members already have indicated they would rather move Hawkins Mill to the iZone than close it. Hopson wants to stay the course under his critical focus plan.

Either way, school board chairwoman Shante Avant said last week it would be wrong for the district to go back on its “promise” to schools like Hawkins Mill.

“I think it’s our responsibility as a board,” she said, “if that’s what we said that’s the track we’re going on, that we continue to provide those kinds of resources.”

The district will hold a community meeting at Hawkins Mill at 6 p.m. on March 8 to review the state’s recommendation.