After months of conversations with principals, long days of travel, and lots of study, district chief Sharon Griffin is finally ready to make some sweeping changes in the Achievement School District’s 30 charter schools.

Griffin, who promised she would listen to parents and administrators before making major changes, told Chalkbeat this week that she wants to revive a report card to hold the state’s charter schools accountable for improving student performance, put a certified teacher in every classroom, and make sure her strongest teachers are in pre-K through 2nd grade.

She said she wants these changes in place by July 1. Griffin met with the district’s 11 charter operators Wednesday to introduce her game plan for swift improvement.

It’s now the seventh year for the district, and Griffin said there needs to be a huge sense of urgency to make the academic gains the district once promised.

In a presentation to Memphis parents this week, Griffin said: “The life of the ASD is at stake. We either fix it and show improvement or it’s not going to exist…I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t feel we are able to fix it.”

Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Under a new governor and education commissioner, the future of the achievement district is unclear. Griffin said Commissioner Penny Schwinn will visit state-run schools in Memphis soon. While Schwinn’s predecessor said the state was open to adding more schools to the district, Schwinn said during her first week, “High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly.”

Griffin’s initiatives come after spending her first school semester on the job on a listening tour, visiting each charter operator and talking through some of the district’s big challenges, like poor teacher retention, low enrollment, and students who chronically miss school.

At a meeting on Wednesday with Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, Griffin showed parents some of the statistics behind her decision-making: In grades 3-4, 12.5 percent of students are scoring on grade level in state tests, while just 3.7 percent of high school students are scoring on grade level.

Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, speaks to media outside now-closed Northside High School.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

“We’re behind you, but we’re done with these failing schools,” Sarah Carpenter, leader of Memphis Lift, told Griffin. “We’re ready to work with you on parents, but a lot of these schools have had too long to be still failing our kids.”

When the district was first created in 2012, it set up school performance requirements that would be used to close some schools and expand others. But a consistent framework was not implemented over time, in part due to the district’s turnover in leadership, Griffin said. She was named the district’s third superintendent last year.

Griffin said she wants to work with a committee of charter leaders to create a framework that could include metrics like how many teachers leave the district in a given school year.

Last year the state launched a revamped school report card as part of a 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools’ achievements in a meaningful way.

Bob Nardo, leader of state-run school Libertas School of Memphis, said the achievement district started with a set of strong performance guidelines, but it was temporarily put aside in 2015 as the district worked to understand the new requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“We need a more sensitive framework for the ASD than just looking at test scores based on one test on one day,” Nardo said. “Moving forward, we need to be able to tell the difference between a priority school that’s struggling and needs accountability and a change, and a school that still has a way to go but is seeing incredibly promising gains or serving diverse student populations well.”

Douglas Harris, a Tulane Professor of Economics and founder of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, has told Chalkbeat that one of the reasons the achievement district has not been effective is due to the lack of accountability for its charters.

While four schools in the Tennessee state district have closed due to issues like underenrollment, the state has not closed or replaced charter operators in the district due to low performance.

GRAD Academy Memphis became the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chalkbeat Tennessee

When asked by Carpenter about the lack of accountability, Griffin said that in fairness to the charter operators, “the framework wasn’t something we held their feet to the fire on. I have to put that in place.”

Griffin told Chalkbeat that she would set clear standards for when an achievement school should close if it’s not performing. She also said she’s met with Shelby County Schools on its local school report card, and she is hoping there can be commonality between it and the achievement district’s framework.

Griffin said she wants new guidelines published and available to charter operators by May 30, and school leaders would have until July 1 to ask questions on it.

In her 27-year career in Memphis schools, Griffin said she’s learned that you can’t improve schools without effective teaching – and the district has struggled to retain strong teachers and teachers with state certifications. The achievement district has declined to specify how many of its teachers were uncertified.

To be certified in Tennessee, educators must have completed a bachelor’s degree and a teacher preparation program. Teachers also need additional credentials from the state to teach certain subjects, like high school biology, and a substitute teacher who is teaching for more than 20 consecutive days also must be certified.

“You have to be certified,” Griffin said. “It is the law. If you’re not certified, you have to be working on it. I’m asking the state for additional funds so we can help our teachers with this.”

Nardo said he is onboard for Griffin’s direction but added that a certification doesn’t necessarily mean a teacher is highly effective.

“One of things we do as charters is we find exceptional teachers from unconventional backgrounds to come into the classroom,” Nardo said, adding that all of his elementary teachers are certified. “There’s a lot of process and bureaucracy, so one of the questions is how do we make clear pathways for quality teachers” who are not certified?

For Kendra Ferguson, leader of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, finding certified teachers “is always a challenge, and it’s becoming more challenging.” She added that she has relied on Relay Graduate School of Education, an alternative teacher preparation program, to get all of her teachers properly credentialed.

“It’s a challenge to find teachers and keep them,” said Ferguson, who operates three schools under the state-run district. “We’ve gotten feedback from teachers that this job is a lot. There’s a lot of need, and sometimes teachers don’t feel very successful.”

The prioritization of K-2 teachers comes after a recent study that showed some Tennessee principals are putting their weakest educators in early grades, where students are not taking state assessments. However, these early grades are critical for building the foundation of learning, especially in literacy, an area where the state has struggled.

Griffin likened her emphasis on teachers in early grades to sports, adding she’s also taking a deep look at how to better the district’s high school educators. She said that her earliest grades, like the first minutes of a basketball game, are critical for setting the tone for students’ academics.

Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.
PHOTO CREDIT: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)

“When a coach wants to win a game, you put your best players in first,” she said. “And when you look at high school, there’s also serious work. Even if you are losing a game, you put your best players back in at the end.”

Griffin’s focus on teachers and leaders is a deviation from past district management, but the right direction, said Jay Brown, chief academic officer at LEAD Public Schools, which runs the achievement district’s only two Nashville-based schools.

“The ASD is once again trying to figure out: ‘What kind of district do we want to be?’” Brown said. “In the past, the district has focused on operations and finances of charters. Griffin’s thing is that effective principals and teachers will equal strong results. I don’t think that’s rocket science, but I think she’s got that right.”