Tennessee’s education chief talks accountability during visits to Memphis turnaround schools

Tennessee’s top education official says she wants to see the Achievement School District “through students’ eyes,” before deciding on any major changes to the state’s turnaround district.

During a visit Thursday three of Memphis’ state-run schools, Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn stressed that one of her main goals would be strengthening accountability for the charter schools that make up the Achievement School District.

“Anytime I’m in a classroom, if students are on the carpet, I’m on the carpet,” said Schwinn, the former academic chief for Texas Schools who joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s administration in February. “If they’re at a desk, I’m at a desk, because I think it’s really important to see what the student experiences in the classroom.”

The state’s ambitious goal when the Achievement School District launched in 2012 was to transform the schools that tested in the bottom 5 percent into top-performers within five years by entrusting them to charter organizations. The district runs 30 schools, 28 of which are in Memphis, and most continue to struggle academically.

“I think that we need to maintain and enhance accountability,” Schwinn told reporters after a school visit. “That’s something I’ve heard directly from the ASD district office, as well as when I talk to the general public and certainly when I talked to families.”

She said that given the investment of public dollars, “we need to make sure that we’re getting a return on that investment.”

Schwinn’s comments come a week after the district’s leader, Sharon Griffin, told Chalkbeat that she is ready to make some sweeping changes, with a focus on increased accountability, to its charter schools, in addition to more support for teachers. Griffin, who accompanied Schwinn during Thursday’s school visits, wants to revive the district’s report card to hold the state’s charter schools accountable for improving student performance, and use that data to replace charter operators that aren’t helping students grow.

While Schwinn’s predecessor said the state was open to adding more schools to the district, Schwinn said she would first seek to learn more about the district and lean heavily on Griffin before she made any decision about the future.

“We have some work to do over the next several months, so that we have a plan in place, a really tight plan, so that everyone knows, this is what entry [into the Achievement School District] looks like,” Schwinn said. “This is what it looks like when you are here, and here’s how you successfully exit the ASD so that we continue to have strong growth.”

The Achievement School District was originally designed to return schools to their local district after making significant academic gains, but no state-run school has exited to date. Four have closed due to issues such as under enrollment.

While in Memphis, Schwinn visited Cornerstone Prep Lester elementary and middle school, as well as Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School.

Sharon Griffin helps students with their math lesson during the education commissioner’s visit. (Caroline Bauman)

Last school year, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English and math state exams. Cornerstone Prep Lester Elementary performed better than its counterparts, with 11.5 percent of students at grade level in English and 20 percent of students at grade level in math.

Meanwhile, Georgian Hills has been a success story for the district – the elementary school not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. Just three years ago,  Georgian Hills was in the bottom 2 percent of schools.

Both elementary schools were two of 13 schools in the Achievement School District that stayed off of the 2018 state list of schools in the bottom 5 percent. Griffin said she chose these three schools for Schwinn to visit because they represent two sides of the achievement district. Georgian Hills is one of three school directly run by the district, not a charter organization, while Lester Prep was one of the first schools taken over by a charter organization; the elementary and middle school is run by Capstone Education Group, a local charter network.

“Right now, we’re focusing on supporting our schools and addressing the needs of our students,” Griffin said after the school visits. “We have many more conversations with the Commissioner ahead, and we share that addressing the needs of all of our children remains our top priority.”