Achievement School District

McQueen: More school takeovers ‘most likely’ coming to Memphis and Nashville

In four years as Tennessee's education commissioner, Candice McQueen has stood by the state's Achievement School District as a school turnaround tool of last resort, even as schools absorbed by the state-run district have generally not improved thus far.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’ll recommend that Tennessee’s Achievement School District take over more low-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville unless the state sees “dramatic changes” this school year.

McQueen, who is stepping down at the end of the year to lead a national education group, said she will talk in the next week with the leadership of Shelby County Schools about which Memphis schools could be eligible for takeover. She already has been in communication with Superintendent Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Schools could come under state control if they have not shown significant growth on state tests and have made Tennessee’s last two priority lists of schools performing in the bottom 5 percent statewide, according to the state’s 2016 education plan, which is required under a new federal law.

“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

“Of course, we’ll look at this year’s data,” she added. “As we go into the end of the school year, we’ll have additional data that will either support or refute the decisions that need to be made.”

The revelation comes as the 6-year-old district has yet to prove itself as an effective school turnaround program — and also as a new governor prepares to take office.

The charter-reliant district generally has not raised student achievement in its 30 schools, including the first six that came under its control in 2012. Critics have called for a moratorium on expansion or even ditching the so-called ASD altogether, but McQueen and outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam have stood by the model as a valued option, albeit one of last resort for chronically underperforming schools.

Asked why people in Memphis and Nashville should have any faith in the ASD given its abysmal track record, McQueen said any decision to move a school into the state’s district will be because of a lack of confidence that the local district has a good plan “to get students ready for college and career.”

“So that can’t continue,” she said, adding that one of the most important responsibilities of the state’s next education commissioner will be to create a “sense of urgency around school improvement.”

McQueen also touted the track record of the ASD’s new superintendent, Sharon Griffin, a turnaround specialist who led Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone to national prominence for its academic gains at locally run Memphis schools. Griffin has been on the job since June and is putting together a strategic plan for improvement.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

“We have a leader in place now that has done this work,” she said. “That expertise is very important. … We can’t fail.”

But state takeover is a years-long process, and a lot could happen to put the skids on the state pursuing its most intense intervention track with more schools in the next few years.

Lee’s administration, which takes over on Jan. 19, could rebuff McQueen’s recommendations. During his campaign, the Republican businessman said he would review the ASD’s work, and he lauded how innovations in Shelby County’s iZone are informing the state’s school improvement strategies.

Schools now on the bubble also could show enough gains to fend off a takeover, and McQueen said “that has to be taken into account in the decision-making.”

Talk of more possible takeovers sparked immediate pushback in Memphis, where the ASD’s work has been centered on schools that are primarily composed of students who are black and low-income.

Shante Avant, who chairs the Shelby County School board, said an expansion doesn’t make sense given the success of the locally led iZone and the struggles of the state-led ASD.

“We and people in the Memphis community would feel more comfortable about interventions that are helping kids grow,” Avant said.

“My question is if the Achievement School District was brought in as the intervention model and the intervention is not working, when do we begin to ask who’s going to take over the intervention model that is not working?” said Stephanie Love, another board member.

Love said the state should focus on issues like getting testing right, fully funding schools, giving teachers the resources they need, and making improvements to schools already under state control.

“There should be a pause on the ASD because the intervention model created by the state of Tennessee has been a complete failure,” she said. “This was a test experiment on black children and once again, it has failed because they know nothing about our children.”

Here are the Memphis schools now at risk of state takeover

In Nashville, a spokeswoman said the district is poised to turn things around at its own lowest-performing schools.

“We are confident that with the right resources and supports, along with the hard work that our teachers and principals are already doing, our priority schools will beat those challenges,” said spokeswoman Dawn Rutledge.

McQueen did not identify which and how many schools she’ll recommend for a potential takeover, but said it will be less than half a dozen. The state has taken control of as many as eight in one year, but the last round was in 2016 when four Memphis schools were converted to state-run charters.

“What we have learned is that focus on a smaller number of schools is needed as you’re bringing them into a completely different organizational structure,” McQueen said.

One factor would be whether an adequate pool of high-quality charter operators apply. If not, McQueen said the ASD could choose to run some schools itself, as it does now with three elementary schools in Memphis.

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Parents, teachers and students protest in 2014 against the proposed state takeover of three Memphis schools.

A spokeswoman for the state education department emphasized on Wednesday that there is no concrete timetable for ASD takeovers at this time, just discussions.

The ASD opened its first schools in 2012 and had grown to 33 schools by 2016. Currently, its portfolio includes 28 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville.

Two years ago, then-Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a one-year takeover pause due to the state’s transition to a new standardized test, and McQueen said the pause was continued as the new federal education law took effect, among other transitions with academic standards and personnel.

“But we feel like going forward for the next couple of years, if our data does not show improvement, then we would be moving schools into the ASD. And our ESSA plan supports that action,” she said of the state’s school improvement plan under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Caroline Bauman, Laura Faith Kebede, and Jacinthia Jones contributed to this report.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”