school turnaround

Memphis and Nashville put on notice about which schools could face state takeover in 2020

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

In one of her final acts as Tennessee education commissioner, Candice McQueen has identified nearly 20 schools that could require the most drastic state interventions — including possibly state takeover in 2020 — if their test scores don’t increase dramatically, according to documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

Eleven Memphis schools and eight in Nashville were singled out by McQueen in the second round of intervention plans for low-performing schools under the state’s new school improvement model. The recommendations — one of which reverses a decisions she made in February — were outlined in letters dated Nov. 29 and Dec. 14 to Director Shawn Joseph and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, respectively.

While she didn’t recommend the state take over any schools next year, McQueen suggested closing one school, Hawkins Mill Elementary in Memphis, for the second year in a row. The local district rejected her recommendation to close it last year.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
American Way Middle School

And in a reversal of a recommendation that she made earlier this year, McQueen is suggesting that American Way Middle remain under Shelby County Schools, for now. The district moved the school into its own school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone, or iZone, this year after McQueen said the district should either hand it over to a charter operator or the state would.

A school is at risk of state takeover if it has had repeat appearances on the state’s “priority list” of lowest performing schools and has shown relatively low academic growth.

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

The recommendations have more Memphis schools at risk of state takeover than McQueen’s last plan released in February, when only one was slated for the state-run Achievement School District. That’s despite Shelby County Schools having fewer schools on the priority list than in previous years.

The state’s improvement plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act was crafted to give local districts more say in how to improve its schools. Before, there was no tiered approach before resorting to state takeover.

But the state’s most drastic tool in school turnaround has not proven to be effective. In fact, recent research has shown schools in the district are no better off than schools that received no intervention. Still, McQueen says underperforming schools that have languished for years need a change — and she believes the state district’s new leader, Sharon Griffin, will make a difference. Griffin is the former chief of schools for Shelby County Schools and ran the iZone, the Memphis-led program that outperformed the state.

“The decisions on specifically which schools, when they will move into the district, and what that planning and transition timeline will look like will be based on the results and data we are seeing this school year (2018-19) and after we have additional discussions with districts, community members, operators, and other key stakeholders and state leaders,” said state department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

The state did not provide specific benchmarks the schools must meet to avoid takeover, but said the department would include consideration of academic growth, graduation rate, and what other schools feed into them.

McQueen identified the following Memphis schools that “will continue in the specific intervention that was designated for them last year.” If they don’t meet the state’s expectations for academic progress during the 2018-19 standardized test, they could be slated for state takeover.

  • American Way Middle (iZone)
  • Geeter K-8 (Whitehaven Empowerment Zone)
  • Hamilton High (iZone)
  • Magnolia Elementary (iZone, and will combine with Alcy Elementary in a new building in 2019)
  • Trezevant High (iZone)

These Memphis and Nashville schools will undergo a “rigorous planning process and implement district-led, evidence-based interventions.” They either appeared again on the state’s priority list after exiting in previous years, made their second appearance on the list this year, or would have made the list if 2017-18 test scores counted. If they don’t significantly improve on 2018-19 tests, they could be considered for closure, state takeover, or charter conversion under the local district.


  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Northwest Prep Academy
  • Wooddale High


  • Buena Vista Elementary
  • Cumberland Elementary
  • Gra-Mar Middle
  • Jere Baxter Middle
  • Joelton Middle
  • Robert Churchwell Elementary
  • Madison Middle
  • The Cohen Learning Center

These Memphis schools have shown high academic growth, but still appear on the state’s 2018 priority list. Next year, these schools could be eligible for the Achievement School District if they don’t continue to show high growth.

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Westwood High

Memphis charter schools that appeared on the state’s priority list are also included in McQueen’s recommendations even though state law says the local school board must close them. State officials did not immediately explain why the charter schools were included. Shelby County Schools board delayed a vote in October to review data and get guidance from the state.

Clarification: Dec. 20, 2018: The headline and the story have been updated to clarify that the schools outlined in the story as facing a state takeover may instead receive some other state intervention.

Below are the letters from McQueen to Hopson and Joseph:

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”

Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says

“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.