Memphis has school turnaround lessons for the nation, say organizers of virtual conference

A student works at a desk at Hillcrest High School in Memphis, Tennessee, home to 25 of 27 schools in Tennessee’s state-run school turnaround program called the Achievement School District. (Karen Pulfer Focht / Chalkbeat)

After 10 years as a hub of some of America’s most intense school turnaround work, Memphis is stepping back to assess lessons learned through a two-day virtual conference beginning Tuesday.

The Memphis Education Fund’s Tipping the Scales conference will convene an all-star lineup of educators, administrators, researchers, and philanthropic leaders connected to Tennessee’s two most prominent school improvement models: the state-run Achievement School District, which operates mostly in Memphis and relies generally on charter operators, and the locally run Innovation Zone, which gives its schools charter-like autonomy but remains under the governance of Shelby County Schools.

School turnaround is often called the hardest work in education. Organizers hope the conference will inform local, state, and national efforts to boost chronically low-performing schools in order to improve outcomes for America’s most vulnerable students. 

“Now feels like the right time to have this conversation,” said Terence Patterson, CEO of the fund that coordinates education-related philanthropic investments in Memphis.

Terence Patterson is CEO of the Memphis Education Fund. (Courtesy of Memphis Education Fund)

In an interview Monday, he cited nearly a decade of high-profile school improvement work and a pandemic year that has “shaken up a lot of things in education.”

“We want to keep innovation and school improvement at the forefront of our conversations,” Patterson said. “We also still have students in failing schools here in Memphis and we don’t want to forget about them.”

Panelists for the opening session, moderated by former Memphis school board chairperson Tomeka Hart-Wigginton, include Dorsey Hopson, former superintendent of Shelby County Schools; Antonio Burt, chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools; Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of the Achievement School District, also known as the ASD; Lisa Settle, current ASD superintendent; Tosha Downey, senior program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in Memphis schools; and Joshua Glazer, associate professor of education policy at George Washington University. 

The ASD and iZone adopted different strategies when they launched in Memphis in 2012 to try to address the city’s enormous challenges of intergenerational poverty and low-performing schools. 

Both initiatives have been tracked by researchers and, in many ways, are at a crossroads as Tennessee and Shelby County Schools look to tweak their models for effectiveness and sustainability.

The charter-reliant ASD did not deliver on early promises to transform schools taken over by the state but remains Tennessee’s most intensive turnaround approach and likely will be revamped under Gov. Bill Lee’s administration. It has about 9,000 students in 27 schools, some of which will exit the state-run district in the next few years under a transition plan approved by the legislature in May. 

The iZone, which now has 10,800 students in 23 schools, achieved stronger academic outcomes in its early years but has struggled to maintain funding and intensity. Researchers’ latest report on the model — which invests extra money to extend the school day and attract the city’s most effective teachers — said “the likeliest path to reforming most of the country’s most under-performing schools goes through traditional urban districts like Shelby County.”

The virtual conference will include Memphis school turnaround leaders such as Tim Ware, a former ASD official who now leads the Grizzlies charter network; Lionel Cable, who was a principal at one of the iZone’s first schools; and Bob Nardo, founding leader of the ASD’s Libertas School of Memphis, the state’s only charter school offering a Montessori education.

Missing from the event will be Sharon Griffin, long-time regional superintendent of the iZone who later briefly led the ASD and now serves as innovation chief for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Patterson said Griffin had a scheduling conflict.

“It is really important that Memphians tell this story because, all too often, there are other folks who talk about what they heard the ASD or the iZone was or wasn’t,” said Patterson. 

And the story is a challenging one that includes community pushback to school takeovers, mixed academic results, and bickering between Shelby County Schools and ASD leaders.

In 2012, Memphis was home to 69 of the state’s 83 priority schools identified as eligible for intervention by the ASD or iZone. The number of Memphis schools on the state’s latest list has been cut by more than half, although many of those have closed or consolidated with other schools.

Now, as the state increasingly has shifted to a more collaborative turnaround approach, Patterson is both optimistic and realistic about the work ahead.

“This work is tough. It’s not clean or neat, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “We’ve had some early missteps in the context of community engagement but I really do believe that, if we can get that right in the next iterations, we can win on behalf of all of our children.”

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