Future of Tennessee school turnaround work uncertain with departure of first statewide leader

A woman with short brown hair and wearing a grey suit jacket stands next to three students sitting at a wooden desk with another adult in the background.
Bren Elliott, right, observes a classroom at LEAD Brick Church School in Nashville in September 2023, soon after starting her job as Tennessee’s first statewide school turnaround superintendent. On Tuesday, the state education department confirmed that Elliott is no longer with the agency. (Image courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

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Six months after Tennessee hired its first leader to manage school improvement work statewide, the position is now vacant.

On Tuesday, the state education department confirmed the departure of school turnaround superintendent Bren Elliott, one of Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds’ first major hires. A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment further or answer questions about whether the vacancy will be filled.

When Elliott stepped into the powerful new position, which took multiple searches across three years to fill, she was tasked with overseeing school improvement work in hundreds of schools in urban, suburban, and rural districts as well as Tennessee’s high-profile Achievement School District, or ASD.

Her abrupt departure raises questions about the future of school improvement work in a state that was once considered a turnaround pioneer, thanks in part to a $500 million award in 2010 from the federal Race to the Top competition to implement various education reforms.

The ASD, the state’s most intensive intervention model, was launched in 2012 using mostly charter school operators, and its lackluster performance has dimmed Tennessee’s star considerably in school turnaround circles.

Elliott’s hiring, announced last August, had been viewed as a way to jumpstart the work.

Elliott had been the school improvement chief for District of Columbia Public Schools since 2017. She also worked as a school administrator in Nashville from 2001 to 2007.

In her new job, chief among Elliott’s responsibilities was overseeing the ASD, which at one time had more than 30 schools in its portfolio but has since dwindled to 13 campuses and 4,600 students, mostly in Memphis.

State officials informed ASD operators last week that Elliott was leaving and that Shannon Gordon, the department’s chief operating officer, will assume her responsibilities.

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“They did not say anything about … reposting that same position by that name,” said Brett Lawson, executive director of Frayer Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter operator with three ASD schools.

Drew Sippel, chief executive officer of longtime ASD operator Capstone Education Group, was also on the call.

“[Gordon] took all the operators’ questions and committed to giving schools the support and resources needed to be successful,” he said.

Elliott also was responsible for supervising interventions for all of the state’s so-called priority schools — those that score in the state’s bottom 5% academically — as well as schools needing targeted support due large gaps in test scores among groups of historically underserved students, such as English language learners, students with disabilities, or those from low-income families. That encompasses nearly 300 schools.

ASD is at a crossroads

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis, said Tuesday that Elliott’s swift departure highlights “disarray” in the education department, especially regarding its oversight of the ASD.

Most ASD schools have performed no better than low-performing schools receiving no intervention, according to researchers.

“It’s incredibly alarming given that we’ve invested over a billion taxpayer dollars in a failed experiment,” he said. “We’ve had superintendent after superintendent after superintendent of the ASD. And yet, it has the highest teacher turnover rate and the lowest graduation rate of any district in our state.”

Last year, Parkinson sponsored a bill that would prevent the state-run district from taking over more low-performing schools. Instead, under his legislation that cleared two House education committees, the state would turn the initiative into a resource hub for school improvement work across Tennessee.

Parkinson said he hopes Elliott’s departure will garner more legislative support for his bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari, also of Memphis.

“What we’re doing now just isn’t working,” he said.

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Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs a House education committee, declined to comment when asked about the personnel change and the future of Tennessee’s school improvement work. He said he wanted to confer with agency officials first.

The ASD hasn’t taken over new schools since 2016. Meanwhile, the district is expected to shrink by half later this year as schools reach the end of their 10-year charter agreements and either exit the ASD or close.

There have been at least five ASD superintendents in a decade. The district’s lack of steady leadership has complicated the complex exit process, creating uncertainty for students, staff, and families in ASD schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Another issue is whether or how the state-run district will grow in the future.

State law gives Reynolds, as education commissioner, the authority to identify schools for takeover and place them in the ASD. But since starting her job last July, Reynolds has not publicly discussed her plans for the turnaround district.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach her at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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