Rocketship becomes latest charter network to pull the plug on Tennessee’s Achievement School District

Tennessee’s school turnaround district has had a rocky month, with two national charter networks announcing plans to close their schools and exit the Achievement School District.

Rocketship became the latest network to pull the plug when the California-based organization announced Thursday that it will shutter Partners Community Prep in Nashville at the end of the school year. The K-2 school just opened last fall, but only had 50 students enrolled. Leaders had hoped for 250.

Weeks earlier, Houston-based Project GRAD USA announced plans to close its Memphis high school this spring — also for enrollment reasons — effectively ending that network’s partnership with the ASD.

The exodus comes as Tennessee also seeks to reset the district that state lawmakers created in 2010 as a school turnaround agent. Both schools closing were started from scratch — a deviation from the district’s original model of taking control of low-performing schools and recruiting charter operators to turn them around.

Founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic allowed “new starts” as he sought to develop the district that launched in 2012, but the state stopped allowing them last year as part of its plan under a new federal education law. Rocketship’s Nashville school was the last to open as a new start.

Low enrollment plagued Partners Community Prep from the outset. Rocketship leaders said they were up against a state law requiring ASD schools to recruit 75 percent of their students from zones that contain “priority schools” that are academically in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

“We underestimated the viability of the ASD framework outlined in state law …,” according to a statement from Rocketship. “The challenges we faced reinforces why the state is redirecting its school improvement efforts on other strategies.”

Those new strategies emphasize partnering with local districts to develop school improvement plans together instead of wresting control of struggling schools from them.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the ASD will continue to be among Tennessee’s turnaround tools — but only as an intervention of last resort.

“We are completely committed to the work of the Achievement School District, and it is a key component of our comprehensive school improvement framework, which we codified in our plan to transition to the Every Student Succeeds Act,” McQueen said in a statement on Thursday. “The transitions we have made over the last few months have all been working to set the Achievement School District up for success and continued growth in the future.”

The closure of Partners Community Prep will be a first in Nashville for the state-run district and will leave two other ASD schools in the state’s capital city. The hub of the district’s work is in Memphis, where three state-run schools have closed, also due to challenges with enrollment.

With the exit of Rocketship and Project GRAD USA, the ASD will operate 30 schools in all at the end of the school year.

After last year’s restructuring of the district office and the departure of Superintendent Malika Anderson, interim leader Kathleen Airhart has sought to stabilize the ASD’s portfolio of schools and operators. Earlier Thursday, she announced plans to hand off the district’s operation of a Memphis middle school to a local charter network that already operates two state-run schools. That school will remain under the ASD’s oversight.

Rocketship will continue to operate two Nashville charter schools under Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Rocketship officials are hopeful that students at Partners will opt to attend Rocketship Nashville Northeast Elementary, which is four miles away, and said the operator will provide bus transportation for transferring students.