turnaround challenge

17 schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district remain priority schools 6 years after first takeovers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee. It is one of 13 schools in the Achievement School District that stayed off of the 2018 priority list.

Most of the schools that were taken over by Tennessee’s turnaround district remain on the state’s priority list six years after the intervention efforts began.

Four of the six original Memphis schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 are on the newest priority list released last week. And more than a dozen schools that were added to the district later also remain on the list.

Four of six original ASD schools remain on list

  • Brick Church College Prep
  • Corning Achievement
  • Frayser Achievement
  • Westside Achievement

For years, the district has fallen short of its ambitious promise to dramatically raise test scores at the schools by handing them over to charter operators — a goal that the district’s founder later acknowledged was too lofty. And researchers with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance recently concluded that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

Read our deep dive into how the original six schools in the Achievement School District performed on recent state tests.

Still, the new list offers yet another troubling data point as the turnaround effort enters a new and uncertain phase. And it quickly drew attention from critics of district, including Diane Ravitch, an education historian who has long been critical of school reform models like the Achievement School District and picked up the story on her blog earlier this week.

Of the 34 schools that have ever been part of the Achievement School District, 17 are on the new priority list, and four have closed. Thirteen schools are not on the new list.

In contrast, Memphis’ Innovation Zone, an improvement initiative from the local district, saw more of its schools move upward: 16 out of 25 schools absorbed into the iZone improved enough to exit the list.

State officials are counting on Sharon Griffin, the architect of the Innovation Zone, to right the ship at the Achievement School District. They hired her to lead the district in April, and she now oversees its 30 schools, all but two of which are in Memphis.

The district was originally designed as the linchpin of the state’s intervention into low-performing schools. But the state hasn’t taken over a school since 2016 and has put more effort into collaborative efforts, like a Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.

Still, the state says the Achievement School District has had a positive influence that might not be reflected in its own school’s scores. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently praised Shelby County Schools’ progress, giving partial credit to the state’s own Achievement School District for creating a sense of urgency in Memphis.

But the latest priority list offers ample ammunition if the state’s next governor chooses to make serious changes to the initiative a priority. Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee, have said they would take a hard look at the district’s strengths and challenges before deciding how the state should use its energy to improve struggling schools.

Here’s a breakdown of state-run schools, listed by the year they were taken into the state-run district. In parentheses, we note the year that school made the state’s priority list.


  • Brick Church College Prep (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Cornerstone Prep – Lester Elementary (2014, 2012)
  • Humes Prep Academy (2012)
  • Corning Achievement (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Frayser Achievement (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Westside Achievement (2018, 2014, 2012)


  • KIPP Memphis Academy Elementary (formerly Shannon Elementary) (2014, 2012)
  • KIPP Memphis Prep Middle (formerly Corry Middle) (2012)
  • Aspire Hanley #1 (2014, 2012)
  • Aspire Hanley #2 (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Klondike Prep Academy (2012)*
  • Grad Academy High School (2018)*
  • Georgian Hills Achievement (2014, 2012)
  • Whitney Achievement (2018, 2014, 2012)


  • Fairley High School – Green Dot (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • KIPP Memphis University Middle School*
  • Aspire Coleman Elementary (2014, 2012)
  • MLK College Prep High School (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Freedom Prep Westwood (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Pathways in Education – Frayser
  • Pathways in Education – Whitehaven
  • Lester Prep Middle School
  • Promise Spring Hill Elementary (2014, 2012)


  • Neelys Bend College Prep (2018, 2014)
  • Wooddale Middle School – Green Dot (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • KIPP Memphis Prep Elementary
  • Libertas School (formerly Brookmeade Elementary) (2014, 2012)
  • Memphis Scholars – Florida Kansas (2018, 2014)
  • Cornerstone Prep Denver (2018, 2014, 2012)


  • Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Hillcrest High School (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Kirby Middle School (2018, 2014, 2012)
  • Rocketship Partners Community Prep*

*This school has closed.

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here:


School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.