Tennessee considers tweaking school turnaround process to add more support and regional superintendents

UPDATE: The state Department of Education released its takeaways from its listening tour, survey, and calls with charter operators here. The state plans to release a new school turnaround framework in the new year and will get more community input on the proposed changes at the following meetings:

  • Jackson: Jan. 6, 5:30 p.m., at Isaac Lane Elementary
  • Memphis: Jan. 7, 5:30 p.m. at Trezevant High School
  • Chattanooga: Jan. 8, 5:30 p.m. at The Howard School
  • Nashville: Jan. 9, 5:30 p.m., at Neely’s Bend Middle School

State officials have been hinting for months that they might make changes to spark improvements in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. During a four-city listening tour that ended in Nashville this week, state Department of Education leaders revealed one facet of that plan: a new format for school turnaround in which schools would go through three levels of support before they could be taken over by the Achievement School District.

Any big changes would most affect the 11 charter school organizations that make up the achievement district, and the 9,700 students at those schools. The potential shifts under new Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn come at a time when many charter leaders are asking for consistency, not upheaval, after the district’s third leader in seven years left last summer.

A pyramid chart shown during the meetings illustrates how the new structure would work.

There would be more defined state support for struggling schools and greater intervention before the possibility of takeover. District officials have also floated the idea of regional superintendents who would oversee the achievement schools and priority schools, creating a more decentralized approach to school turnaround.

The new pyramid format doesn’t look wildly different from the state’s school improvement plan developed under former education chief Candice McQueen. It was also a tiered model of support that emphasized collaboration with local districts and kept the achievement district’s threat of school takeover as a tool of last resort. However, the district hasn’t taken over any schools since 2016.

The state hasn’t said yet what intervention would look like in the levels before state takeover and how long a school would remain in each level if improvements aren’t made. 

The new model is meant to provide clarity and detail exactly what assistance would be offered during each level of intervention, said Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for the state department. 

“Stakeholders requested a simplified, more streamlined model of support that provides more detail on the types of support that would be offered and more clarity on how and when schools move between the tiers, including entrance and exit from ASD,” Johnson said. 

On a call with charter operators last week, achievement district leaders also floated the idea of moving to a decentralized regional structure for turnaround work and more oversight, according to three charter leaders on the call.This could include creating regional superintendents at the state level in East, Middle, and West Tennessee that would oversee schools in the achievement district, as well as priority schools. 

Bob Nardo, leader of Libertas School of Memphis, said the regional superintendent approach could make sense, given the achievement district’s history of Nashville-based leaders struggling to gain trust in Memphis, where 28 of the 30 schools are housed.

“I mean, from the very beginning, it’s been difficult if not impossible, for one person to try to sufficiently understand the local conditions in Memphis and Chattanooga, Nashville, etc.,” Nardo said. 

Nardo added that district officials also suggested moving toward having a governing board oversee the achievement district. The district was designed so that each charter organization has its own board, but there isn’t one governing entity overseeing the district. 

“It’s clearly the case that it’s not obvious for people where to go when they have questions or concerns or input,” Nardo said. “On the other hand, the premise of the ASD from the very beginning is that control should lie with individual schools and their board, and that those people have a greater understanding of their schools than some statewide entity.” 

During the state’s listening tour, no mention was made of the regionalized approach. Felicia Everson-Tuggle, assistant commissioner of school improvement, emphasized during the meetings that changes will not be finalized until spring 2020 and one of the tour’s goals was to get community input on the plan. 

While state officials highlighted the pyramid structure during the public meetings, they did not ask parents questions about the suggested changes. They asked more general questions, such as “What would you like to be true at your child’s school?” 

Johnson said the state is still seeking input through an online survey.

Schwinn, who is still in her first year on the job, said in July that she hasn’t been satisfied with progress in the achievement district. Seven years after its creation, a study found the program has not improved student achievement, and Schwinn announced that no new schools will join the district this year school year.

And while Schwinn has said some schools will exit the achievement district, there’s no clear plan yet for what would be required for a school to return to local control. 

Related: Some schools may exit Tennessee’s struggling turnaround district next year. But who will run them?

Megan Quaile, leader of Green Dot Public Schools in the achievement district, said she was encouraged to see many of her parents attend the state listening tour, but discouraged that there weren’t a lot of specifics for parents to weigh in on regarding the new model. 

“It’s a concern to me that decisions are being made without full understanding,” Quaile said. “I’ve said that to everyone I can at the state.” 

Quaile added that communication has been lacking and her team only found out about the listening tour meetings in Memphis through Chalkbeat reporting. 

Charles Scott, former leader of a countywide parent, teacher and student association, told Chalkbeat he believes changes are needed for the achievement district, and that he hopes the state asks parents “the hard questions” on any major decisions.  

“I think it’d be great honestly if the commissioner did a reboot of the district and just the overall state approach to schools struggling,” Scott said. “I’m glad to see them listening to people in the community, but I hope it’s not the only time they hear from us. Parents and students are the most affected by any big changes, and their voices should be heard all the way through.” 

You can view the state’s listening tour presentation in full below: