ASD copycats

More states look to Tennessee’s Achievement School District as a school turnaround model

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

When Chris Barbic took the helm of Tennessee’s new Achievement School District in 2011, there was little guidance for how a state-run turnaround school district might look.

“Nothing existed,” Barbic said recently during a Fordham Institute panel on turnaround districts. “I walked into an office with a sheet of paper with some legislation, and the charge was, go start a school district.”

That’s beginning to change as more lawmakers across the nation look to Barbic’s Achievement School District as a model to improve struggling schools on a larger scale — even as the impact of Tennessee’s pioneering district remains murky.

As the ASD completes its third year of operation, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arkansas all appear poised to launch state-run turnaround school districts, with Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Nevada even seeking to copy Tennessee’s “ASD” moniker.

Before Tennessee established the ASD in its omnibus 2010 First to the Top Act, only Louisiana had tried its hand at a turnaround school district, in which the state had authority to take control of low-performing public schools and convert them into charter schools.

But Louisiana’s situation was different than Tennessee’s. Its turnaround district, called the Recovery School District (RSD), was established in 2004, and quickly became the dominant school system in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when most of New Orleans’ educational infrastructure was literally washed away. Today, it operates about 60 schools — all charters — while the Orleans Parish School District operates 20.

Tennessee’s ASD arose out of the federal Race to the Top grant competition, which incentivized states to come up with bold proposals to improve their worst schools. The ASD was the centerpiece of Tennessee’s resulting First to the Top Act, which also overhauled teacher evaluations and instituted Common Core. For its efforts, Tennessee joined Delaware as the nation’s first recipients of the Race to the Top grant, providing Tennessee an additional $500 million in education spending over four years.

As the ASD was being created, Michigan was laying the groundwork for its own state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority. The ASD and Michigan’s district both began operation in 2012, but Tennessee’s district has twice as many schools — 29 in the 2015-16 school year, mostly in Memphis —and has had a smoother start than its Michigan counterpart.

The ASD also is the only district of its type with the concrete goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.

The buzz has attracted national attention and copycat initiatives from a growing list of states. Pennsylvania’s Senate passed a bill last week to approve an ASD there, and the measure now awaits a House vote. Nevada’s legislature approved an ASD in May. Georgia voters will decide next year on a constitutional amendment to create an “Opportunity School District.”

In at least five other states — Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — lawmakers or activists have begun campaigns to launch similar programs.

Meanwhile, Virginia attempted to model its own turnaround district after the ASD, but a court struck down the law that would have permitted creation of the “Opportunity Education Institute.” The court ruled that the plan violated the state’s constitution because the district was created by the legislature, and not by the state board of education, and because it unseated local district control.

For his part, Barbic is unsure if there are enough high-quality charter operators to go around, should the ASD copycats get off the ground.

“The bottom line is that there are not a lot of great charter operators to begin with, and there are even fewer who understand how to do turnaround,” he said during Fordham’s panel, which also included leaders from Louisiana and Michigan.

“If we don’t solve the charter supply problem, we can have as many of these (turnaround districts) on the books as we want, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually be executed and done well,” said Barbic, who was recruited to Tennessee from Houston, where he helped found the Yes Prep charter network.

Barbic is no stranger to the challenges. Many of the ASD’s Memphis schools lag behind their counterparts in Shelby County Schools’ own school turnaround program known as the Innovation Zone. And last year, four charter networks — including Yes Prep — backed out of plans to expand with the ASD. In addition to often mediocre improvement on end-of-year tests, the ASD has frequently been accused of clumsy engagement with the communities in which it opens schools.

Barbic acknowledges that the ASD has made mistakes, but is quick to point out changing attitudes and priorities among local education leaders as a result of the looming threat of ASD intervention in lackluster districts. He thinks the ASD has helped propel district-led turnaround efforts such as Memphis’ I-Zone.

Community engagement has often fallen by the wayside, he said, because of the district’s speedy timeline.

“Some of that lays at our feet, and some of that is the speed in which we’ve had to move with this,” Barbic said before conceding that “there has to be more parent demand for what we’re trying to do” if the district is to be ultimately successful.

Education leaders in Tennessee have watched the ASD’s evolution with both fascination and fear.

Will Pinkston, a school board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, coined the term “Achievement School District” during the drafting of the First to the Top Act when he worked for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. He has since become an ASD critic, saying the initiative was never intended to rely so heavily on charter operators, or grow so quickly.

“If other states want to commit to creating pro-public education turnaround agencies that are designed to help students and teachers in traditional schools, I think it’s great for them to co-opt the name,” Pinkston said. “If they’re instead looking to turn their backs on traditional public education, as the ASD is doing, then I would encourage them to look at different and more intellectually honest monikers.”

“Regardless,” he joked, “it’s abundantly clear that we should have trademarked the brand with the royalties going to support public schools.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”