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.”

packing up

Charter school in Tennessee’s turnaround district relocating out of neighborhood it signed up to serve

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The new Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt sign next to faded letters of Shelby County Schools name for the middle school.

When officials at Memphis Scholars Raleigh-Egypt Middle School learned that another school on the same campus could get extra help for its students, they made a big decision: to pick up and move.

Memphis Scholars announced Monday that the school will reopen next year in a building 16 miles away, where the charter operator already runs another school under Tennessee’s turnaround district. The network will pay to bus students from the Raleigh neighborhood across Memphis daily.

The move is the latest and most dramatic episode in an ongoing enrollment war between the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools in the Raleigh neighborhood.

Most recently, Shelby County Schools proposed adding Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High, which shares a campus with Memphis Scholars now, into the district’s Innovation Zone — a change that would bring new resources and, the district hopes, more students.

The Innovation Zone represents a “high-quality intervention” for students in the neighborhood, according to Memphis Scholars Executive Director Nick Patterson. But he said it makes the presence of his school less essential.

Shelby County Schools’ proposal “creates two schools, on the same campus, serving the same grades, both implementing expensive school-turnaround initiatives,” Patterson said in a statement. “Memphis Scholars strongly believes that this duplication of interventions is not in the best interest of students and families as it divides scarce resources between two schools.”

The move also allows the network to solve two persistent problems. First, enrollment at Raleigh-Egypt Middle is less than half of what it was supposed to be, putting so much pressure on the school’s budget that the network obtained an energy audit to help it cut costs. That’s because Shelby County Schools expanded the adjacent high school to include middle school grades, in an effort to retain students and funding.

Plus, Memphis Scholars ran into legal obstacles to adding middle school grades to its Florida-Kansas school. Moving an existing middle school to the Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas Elementary campus circumvents those obstacles. Because state law requires that at least 75 percent of students at Achievement School District schools come from the neighborhood zone or other low-performing schools on the state’s “priority list,” the charter school can welcome any middle schooler in its new neighborhood.

But network officials want to keep serving their existing students, and they’re offering transportation to make that possible.

It’s unclear if Raleigh students will follow the charter school across town. Some parents reached by Chalkbeat on Monday said they hadn’t heard about the changes yet, but their students said they found out today.

“I hadn’t heard about the changes, but I don’t like that too much,” said Reco Barnett, who has two daughters who attend the school. “We’re here because it’s right by where we live. It’s right in our area. I don’t know what we’ll do yet, I just now found out when you told me, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that. That’s a long ways away from us.”

The move would free up the building for use by Shelby County Schools. District officials did not provide comment Monday.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

Notable departure

Last original leader resigns from Tennessee’s school turnaround district

The state-run Achievement School District began taking over schools in Memphis in 2012.

Margo Roen, who has been instrumental in recruiting local and national charter operators to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, has resigned as its deputy superintendent.

PHOTO: Achievement School District
Margo Roen

She said her departure, which is effective June 30, is not related to the State Department of Education’s plans to downsize and restructure the turnaround district by July 1.

“This decision (to leave) is an extremely hard one, and does not in any way diminish the immense belief I have in our schools and kids, and my admiration, appreciation, and respect for the ASD team, operators, and partners in this work,” Roen told Chalkbeat this week in an email.

With Roen’s departure, the ASD will lose its last original leader. She joined the state-run district in 2011 after its creation as part of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan. Superintendent Malika Anderson, who was once deputy to founding superintendent Chris Barbic, joined a few months later, along with Troy Williams, the ASD’s chief operating officer.

In addition to overseeing charter recruitment efforts, Roen has co-led the ASD’s Operator Advisory Council to give charter leaders more say in ASD decisions and collaborate across the district’s 33 schools.

Roen said she will remain in Memphis and plans to work on projects with school districts across the nation.