A new way

Tennessee considers a new approach for getting local schools to improve: working with them

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
A fifth-grader reads at Aspire Coleman Elementary, a charter school in Memphis under Tennessee's Achievement School District. The state is eying another school turnaround approach for Chattanooga that would give schools charter-like autonomy but under the governance of a state-local board.

For its next experiment in how to improve struggling schools, Tennessee is taking inspiration from a model that’s shown promise in a small city in Massachusetts.

Officials are eyeing Chattanooga for their first foray into the “partnership zone” approach. The city has many low-performing schools but so far has gone untouched by the state’s school improvement efforts.

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

“You want district and school staff to be bought into the work the state is also trying to do,” said Ashley Jochim, an analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which specializes in educational governance and bureaucratic reform. “In the case of Springfield, that arrangement really helped to facilitate this buy-in.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

State education officials view Chattanooga as fertile ground for Tennessee’s first zone. The city has the state’s third-highest number of “priority schools” with test scores in the bottom 5 percent; and after years of local efforts to improve the schools without significant progress, the state is obligated to step in.

Plus, the district’s five priority schools are all part of the same “feeder pattern,” so that all students end up at the same high school. That eases collaboration and avoids a peril that many school improvement efforts face: Students have a better experience at one school, only to move on to another that’s still struggling.

“To have a strategy that may only be impacting one or two schools in the short run … may not be the best strategy,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

State officials could also move the Chattanooga schools into the Achievement School District, the state’s primary school-improvement strategy since 2012. Doing so would mean the state would turn the schools over to charter operators. Local leaders could give input but have no say in final decisions about who would run the schools, and how.

McQueen plans to review both possibilities with Hamilton County school leaders on Thursday. “We are continuing to discuss which option will be most successful,” she said Tuesday, emphasizing that no decision has been made.

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Parents, teachers and students protest in 2014 against the proposed state takeover of three Memphis schools.

But it’s clear that McQueen is eager to avoid the turf wars that have accompanied expansions of the Achievement School District. McQueen said recently that the state is reluctant to force the model in Chattanooga — a lesson learned from angry protests that have erupted with each school takeover in Memphis, the hub of the ASD’s work.

The partnership zone model is less vulnerable to criticism, not only because local officials continue to play a role, but also because it does not require schools to replace their leaders and teachers, as has happened when schools are taken over by the Achievement School District. Plus, teachers at the schools remain part of their local unions. While local unions have joined resistance against the state-run district in Memphis and Nashville, union leaders in Springfield have backed the zone there.

“By having a culture of change where the critical mass of people feel they have a voice in what is being done and ownership in the plan, the likelihood of implementing the plan with fidelity goes up dramatically,” the head of Springfield’s teachers union told the Boston Globe this winter.

The new approach reflects a broader shift toward empowering schools and districts to improve themselves. The most successful turnaround initiative in Tennessee, Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, also gives principals the freedom to try changes tailored to their schools’ needs, and more resources to make that happen.

The shift in part responds to growing evidence that top-down changes are not producing needed increases in student learning. Schools in the Achievement School District, for example, are far from showing the test score gains that officials promised.

Efforts that give schools and districts more say in how they’re overhauled are increasingly seen as stronger bets. “The philosophy we’ve had as a department is that districts that help choose their own path will have the highest chance of success,” a Colorado official told Chalkbeat earlier this year. There, some Denver schools have joined a local “innovation zone” that’s similar to the partnership zone, but without state involvement.

Education Cities, a nonprofit that lobbies for innovative governance models such as partnership zones, examined the shift in a report released this month. The report, which examined Springfield’s zone in detail, concluded that local commitment is essential to making the difference that students need.

“Just appointing different administrators to oversee a school system without making changes — big changes — to the people running the schools or the operators running the schools has not led to significant change in other places where the strategy has been tried,” said Ethan Gray, CEO of Education Cities. “The name of the game is driving power and decision-making to the school level.”


Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.