Schwinn: No new schools will enter Tennessee’s turnaround district this year, but some may leave

Big changes will be coming to Tennessee’s Achievement School District within the next few months, the state’s education chief told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.

While Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the department is still determining what exactly those changes will be, two things are certain for the upcoming school year: No new schools will enter Tennessee’s troubled turnaround district, and there’s a likelihood some will exit and return to their local districts.

“That is entirely possible looking at the early data,” Schwinn said. “And that’s the point. We’re excited about that because it means that our schools have grown to the point where they can return to local communities and local control.”

This is significant because since the district was created in 2012, no schools have exited from state control. The district promised to raise the state’s lowest-performing schools into the top quarter academically within five years by giving them to charter organizations, whose leaders have more control over daily operations than district principals.

While the 30 schools in the district have not seen huge academic gains, some have improved enough to be moved off of the state’s list of troubled schools. The charter operator can return to local oversight if it remains off the list for two consecutive years. This is the first school year many achievement schools will have two consecutive years of solid testing data because Tennessee has struggled with its testing vendors.

While the achievement district was once the cornerstone of Tennessee’s turnaround strategy, no new schools have been added to the district since 2016. Schwinn said that trend will continue this year because the state is in “the process of redesigning and building” the district.

“So, now isn’t the time,” Schwinn said. “There will be schools [added] in the future.”

Schwinn’s comments came during a daylong forum Schwinn convened in Nashville on turnaround efforts, which Chalkbeat was invited to attend. The closed-door meeting was a fact-finding mission for Schwinn, who asked education leaders from around the nation what practices worked best to turn around a school’s performance.

Tuesday’s conversation comes about a month after heralded turnaround leader Sharon Griffin left her role as superintendent of the district, which she held for about a year. It also follows a recent research brief by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance that found Tennessee’s turnaround district has not improved student achievement during its first six years.

“The report that just came out is serious, because we’re talking about the lives of children and the education of children,” Schwinn said. “And so we have a responsibility to look at the data, look at the information, look at the findings and say we can and must do better. And it is my full intention to do.”

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Schwinn said more conversations will be coming to Memphis, which houses 28 of the schools in the achievement district.

“Over the next six to eight weeks, we’re going to have some frank and honest conversations about the direction of the ASD,” Schwinn said.  “We want to make sure that we’re soliciting feedback from families of students who are currently enrolled at ASD schools, because they are the most important voice.”

Schwinn did say the state would increasingly work alongside districts to intervene in struggling schools, but that doesn’t mean the state-run achievement district will disappear. She credited the state takeover model for motivating local districts to create their own school improvement strategies.

The most well known is the Shelby County Innovation Zone – which touted student gains in its early years, but more recent research said its gains have been hard to sustain over time.

Schwinn said the continued existence of the achievement district “sends a signal of importance in improving and growing our highest opportunity schools.” But she added that there should be “really strong models that districts can explore before we get to that ultimate intervention.”

“And if that ultimate intervention does occur, it occurs with local partnership, it cannot be a state-only intervention anymore,” Schwinn said. The original vision of the achievement district was to remove schools from district control. Schwinn’s predecessor started moving toward more collaborative models, namely the Hamilton County Partnership Zone, when the achievement district didn’t show initial academic success.

“It has got to be something that the state and the community are coming together and saying we can do better… or else as soon as those schools are out of the ASD, there’s no investment or ownership. So, I think that’s what you will see in whatever the state-run district looks like in a year or two years.”