More local charter operators sought by Tennessee’s Achievement School District

While most schools under Tennessee’s Achievement School District are run by charter networks based out of state, some local operators have been part of the mix too — a pool that the state-run district wants to expand in its turnaround work in Memphis and Nashville.

Earlier this month, the ASD held the first of four trainings designed to cultivate local operators to be part of the district’s future expansion.

The trainings, titled “Local Operator Cultivation Sessions,” invite community leaders in Memphis and Nashville to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD, tasked with turning around the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools.

The sessions are aimed at developing local talent, while also acknowledging that a local-national mix is necessary to support the ASD’s growth given the limited number of high-quality national networks.

“The ASD has really tried to prioritize local charters,” said Chantavia Burton, director of portfolio management, during discussions with the sole attendee Thursday evening at the second training, this one in Memphis. The state-run district needs to “cultivate more local talent” to tackle turnaround work, she added.

Of the ASD’s 13 charter operators, six are from out of state, but those national networks operate more than half of the district’s 28 charter-run schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, the visionary behind the ASD’s charter-based turnaround model, expressed concern last year about whether there are enough high-quality operators to go around as more states launch state-run districts like Tennessee’s. Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania are among states that recently have created, or are considering creating, such initiatives.

Prioritizing local charter operators is especially significant in Memphis, where opposition has been strongest against state takeovers of local low-performing schools. Many parents and community leaders have questioned the motivations and intentions of “outsiders” taking control of neighborhood schools, as well as the authenticity of community engagement efforts by the ASD and its operators, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 merger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools and the subsequent departure of six mostly white municipalities that created their own districts — both of which had racial undertones.

ASD spokeswoman Letita Aaron said it’s important to have operators who “understand the culture and context of the community,” which is why, she said, “we’re getting as many local operators as we can.”

The push for local operators comes in the same month that Memphis-based Gestalt Community Schools announced plans to exit as overseer of two ASD schools in North Memphis. Gestalt leaders cited low enrollment as the reason behind their decision.

The trainings also are happening during a year when ASD leaders opted to take a year off from school takeovers in the aftermath of the failed rollout of the state’s new standardized TNReady tests. District leaders said they would use this year to “continue to support and define the path forward in anticipation of a new Priority list being run in 2017.”

That means that ASD leaders are laying the groundwork for future expansion down the road.