State unveils new intervention process for underperforming schools

After a year of turmoil, the state-run school district charged with transforming Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools is overhauling the way it assigns local schools to outside charter operators to turn them around.

Instead of letting entire communities weigh in publicly on the assignments at town hall-style meetings, the Achievement School District will ask small groups of mostly parents to provide feedback. And instead of conscripting eligible charter operators to take over some of Memphis’ longest-struggling schools, the district will require the operators to prove their commitment.

The changes are aimed at increasing community support for the transformations and making it less likely that charter operators will abandon schools that they were expected to improve — something that happened with half of the operators slated to take over schools last year.

“Our fundamental belief is that this has to be done in partnership with the community,” ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said Thursday. “Schools don’t operate in a vacuum. They are a part of the community and that connection is vital.”

For the three years of the ASD’s existence, charter operators applied to the state for the right to run schools, but the district itself decided which applicants would operate individual schools. To help make that decision, the district held community meetings to solicit feedback and convened an advisory committee to oversee the process.

But those meetings, which district officials envisioned as a time for charter operators and parents to get to know each other, frequently dissolved into shouting matches between charter officials and community members. More often than not, neighborhood parents and leaders were unhappy that their schools had been deemed failing and were angry that outsiders could change the names, teaching staffs and program offerings of schools with deep community roots.

Officials with YES Prep, the charter network that Barbic founded in Houston, cited “strong opposition” from the community when announcing in March that they were pulling out of their agreement to take over Airways Middle School during the upcoming school year.

Starting this fall, charter operators who already have been authorized to run schools in the ASD will have to complete extensive applications indicating their interest in being matched with particular schools.

Then, the district will convene committees at each of the schools where the ASD is considering intervening. Those committees — which will be composed of eight parents and two other people — will meet multiple times before submitting written feedback about the charter applicants.

District officials still will make the final decision about which schools should be absorbed by which charter operators.

The new process is meant to stretch the timeline for charter operators to engage with parents before fully committing to taking over a school, according to Lauren Walker, a top ASD official who helped design the new process. “This is about…whether the charter operator is a good fit for a school and if they truly understand what it’s going to take to turn the school around,” she said.

Walker said the district had decided to discontinue the citywide advisory council because it had not represented local school communities sufficiently. The 24-member Achievement Advisory Council was composed of community members with a stake in the school system but not necessarily ties to the schools facing changes.

In addition, the school-level committees meant to elevate the voices of parents in an environment previously dominated by teacher opposition, Barbic said. “We heard from the teachers and the community leaders, but the voice that got lost were the voice of the parents,” he said.

People who protested charter school conversions last year said the revamped process could end up quashing voices instead of empowering parents.

“They’re weeding out the parents from the process,” said Toni Jackson, a former teacher at South Side Middle School, which closed this year after charter operator KIPP backed out of the ASD’s invitation to take it over. “How are eight parents supposed to know what the entire school community feels? How do they get the pulse of the community?”

Teachers, students, and other community members could fill the non-parent slots on the committees, Barbic said.

And Barbic said the district’s “score sheet” to determine which operators should run which schools will weigh the committees’ feedback heavily. (The district will make those decisions in December.) Charter operators that don’t make an effort to engage the community will not be allowed to assume control of schools, he said.

“We’re not trying to sterilize the community voice or not allow people to express their emotions,” Barbic said. “We want this to become a productive conversation.”

Nineteen Shelby County schools currently meet the criteria to be absorbed by the ASD, as do 11 schools in Nashville. The state district already has control of 27 schools in Memphis and two in Nashville for the 2015-16 school year. The vast majority are run by charter operators.

The community input process is not the only thing about the ASD to change this year. A new state law restricts the district from taking over schools that are already making academic progress, meaning that the district will choose from fewer — and more uniformly low-performing — schools when state achievement test scores come out later this summer.

Because district officials frequently have emphasized that it takes years to turn around struggling schools, those scores will provide a first significant referendum on the ASD’s success.

At this pivotal juncture, the overhauled public input and school-operator matching processes show signs of more transparency, according to Stephanie Love, a Shelby County Schools board member who has been a vocal critic of the ASD.

“It seems like they’re being more transparent as a whole,” Love said. “The best thing we can do is let the parents know ahead of time what’s going on and give them real information and tell them the truth.”

This story has been updated to clarify some elements of the new process and to include information about the Achievement Advisory Council’s makeup and role.