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

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.

American Way Middle School (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

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: