chalk talk

Memphis’ new iZone chief shares his data-driven plan for fixing struggling schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

When Antonio Burt left Memphis to jumpstart turnaround work in Florida schools known as “failure factories,” he took with him lessons from Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

A founding iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School, Burt is now back in Memphis to oversee the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Among his responsibilities: sustaining the iZone’s growth and taking some of its strategies to other struggling schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

Since starting as assistant superintendent in July, Burt has acquired 66 schools in his caseload. Twenty-three are iZone schools, and the rest are in or near the state’s bottom 10 percent on test scores. The latter group includes “critical focus schools” that have a chance to turn themselves around or be recommended for closure by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Chalkbeat sat down recently with Burt to talk about what iZone lessons worked in his last job with Pinellas County Schools near Tampa, as well as his plan for improving historically low-performing schools in Memphis. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How have you jumped into your new job, and what does it look like?

July was strictly around studying the data, formulating next moves, structuring teams, outlining programs that work, and also doing a lot of listening. You don’t want to implement things blind to what’s already in place, and you want to know if there are areas that you can build upon.

I looked at each school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and potential threats or barriers. Based on that analysis, I designed what my support would look like for the upcoming year. Some schools will see me six times this year, some four, and some twice.  

"If you don't codify best practices, you run the risk of having silos of success. "

I’m thinking a lot about alignment. When you implement two new curriculums (for English and math) in the same year, you have to make sure all departments and supports are aligned so you won’t have any gaps or fault lines. I have instructional leadership directors (ILDs) going into schools together with content advisers to make sure they are saying the same thing, using the same language, so we don’t send out mixed messages. We have more ILDs this year with smaller caseloads. They’re really the drivers of change when you think about the number of times they’re in the building supporting schools.

If you don’t codify best practices, you run the risk of having silos of success. So how can we align those best practices and have more systemic success across the entire zone? That’s a lot of my major work.

How did you get interested in turnaround work?

My first teaching position was at Cypress Middle School in North Memphis. I was 22 and fresh out of college. At that time, Cypress was probably the toughest middle school, or one of the toughest schools in the city. Huge overage grade population and roughly 60 to 70 percent of the building was receiving some type of SPED services. Plus, that area is considered one of the most impoverished zip codes in the United States.

Seeing how the kids responded with the right leadership and the right individuals in the building was like they were yearning for structure and support. But as a teacher, there was only so much I could do. The whole time, I was painting a picture in my head: If I was a leader, these are the things that I would do; these are things I wouldn’t do. Two years in, I knew I wanted to be a principal, and I started to align my work around that goal.

What iZone practices worked in your last job in Florida?

Some of what I did was iZone practices, but some were specific to what worked at Ford Road Elementary. For example, my content coaches did a curriculum diagnostic to match curriculum with the state standards and we created instructional focus calendars. We introduced certain standards earlier in the year. … We also had teachers give bi-weekly assessments. That got a lot of pushback, but I’m a strong advocate that you have to practice how you plan on playing. I need to know on a two-week basis where you actually are after we’ve delivered nine days of instruction. I knew it would work because I did it at Ford Road. That was the driver that helped the two lowest-performing schools in Florida jump from F to C because they had real-time data throughout the school year. Before that, they only had district assessments given every nine weeks or so. So, for nine weeks, we don’t know how your kids are performing, and your teachers don’t know. And remember, these are brand new teachers primarily in these schools. It’s important that we give them real-time data and help them learn how the data drives your instruction.

Before you left for Florida, you worked briefly with the five state-run Achievement Schools in Frayser. What differences did you see between the Achievement School District and the iZone?

The ASD had been through a lot of changes, which brought about inconsistency. The iZone was probably moving the needle on scale more regularly. The iZone had a little more consistency. You had some of those same leaders, and they would do well in those seven or eight schools before you add more. They built upon successes, whereas I think the ASD was still trying to figure it out.

"When you walk into schools, a kid will ask you, 'Are you going to be here next year?'"

Leadership drives change. If you’ve got a leader who is proven, who has done it, and who can actually walk you through it and show you how, that helps. In a city like Memphis, it’s already a mobile city. When you walk into schools, a kid will ask you, ‘Are you going to be here next year?’ That lets you know that kid has experienced a lot of faces inside the building. Whether it’s Shelby County, charter or whatever, kids will ask you that question. It’s a question that used to pain me as a principal. I think one of the things that contributed to the iZone’s success was consistency in human capital — from the teachers, from school leaders — and they were able to take lessons learned and implement those into the next year.

How does poverty affect the classroom? What is a school’s role in mitigating those challenges for its students?

Poverty is a societal ill that we can’t overlook. When you think of kids who may be coming to school from impoverished areas, sometimes the socialization piece may not be there because they often have to fend for themselves for meals, protection, shelter. Poverty also plays a factor in school readiness. You may enter school with a 30,000-word deficit in vocabulary, which means schools are playing catchup at an early age.

If we don’t address the gap early in the game, then the likelihood of the kid being successful in third grade and after is very slim. We have to make sure kids are entering third grade as close to grade level as possible, and that means making sure that we’re providing foundational literacy skills that may be missing.

Schools play a major role in reversing some of the views or actions that come out of poverty. It’s the school leader’s responsibility to have individuals inside of the building that show that you care and you’re there for the kid. You can do that in multiple ways like sponsoring after-school activities or engaging kids in the hallway. When you do that, you’re breaking a mindset of “no one cares.”

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat does Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. Email your suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]

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. She’ll help to host a meeting at the school next week 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.

five years in

Tennessee’s two big school turnaround experiments are yielding big lessons, researchers say

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee this month received a report card of sorts from researchers who have closely followed its two primary initiatives for five years.

The assessment was both grim and promising — and punctuated with lessons that already are informing the state’s efforts to improve struggling schools.

The grim: The state-run Achievement School District fell woefully short of its initial goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. This model, based on the Recovery School District in Louisiana, allowed Tennessee to take control of struggling local schools and to partner with charter management organizations to turn them around. But not only has the ASD failed to move the needle on student achievement, it has struggled to retain teachers and to build a climate of collaboration among its schools, which now number 32.

The promising: Innovation zones, which are run by several local districts with the help of extra state funding, have shown promise in improving student performance, based on a widely cited 2015 study by Vanderbilt University. The model gives schools autonomy over financial, programmatic and staffing decisions, similar to charter schools. While iZones exist in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, the most notable work has been through Shelby County Schools, now with 23 Memphis schools in its turnaround program. Not only have student outcomes improved in the iZone, its schools have enjoyed lower teacher turnover rates and greater retention of high-quality teachers.

One big lesson, according to this month’s report: Removing schools from their structures of local government isn’t necessary to improve student outcomes.

That explains Tennessee’s decision, under the new federal education law, to include partnership zones as part of its expanded turnaround toolkit. The model offers charter-like autonomy but is governed jointly by local and state officials. The first zone will launch next fall in Chattanooga, where the school board reluctantly approved the arrangement recently for five chronically underperforming schools that otherwise would have been taken over by the ASD.

The partnership model avoids the toll of school takeover, which the report’s researchers say contributed to community mistrust of the ASD, especially in its home base of Memphis.

“That faith in the ask of these schools going to the state operator came with the promise to raise student achievement,” said researcher James Guthrie. “To not see this achievement in the first round of results raises a crisis of legitimacy (for the ASD).”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Guthrie is among researchers who have followed school turnaround efforts as part of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, or TERA. The group’s work continues to guide the State Department of Education on what has worked, what has not, and why. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen requested their five-year summary as part of the state’s own self-analysis, as well as to inform school improvement work nationwide.

In interviews with Chalkbeat, TERA researchers emphasized that the final word hasn’t been written on any of the turnaround models in play in Tennessee. They continue to track students in struggling schools. And they emphasized that turnaround is a long game, one that the ASD’s founders underestimated.

“The cautionary tale of any reform is to be realistic about what you can achieve,” said Ron Zimmer of the University of Kentucky. “…If (the ASD) had been more realistic, people would have had more realistic expectations (about) what would have been deemed a success.”

The operators of ASD schools have had a steep learning curve amid daunting challenges that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition.

Five years in, there’s still hope that the ASD can improve its schools with more time, said Joshua Glazer of George Washington University.

“We have seen that several providers have learned some hard lessons and are now applying those lessons to their models,” Glazer said. “Many have overhauled curriculum and taken a very different approach to supporting teachers. Across the board, providers have realized that much more robust systems of guidance and support are needed. These changes have the potential to lead to better student outcomes, but only time will tell if scores will go up.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A former superintendent for Jackson-Madison County Schools, Verna Ruffin became the ASD’s chief of academics in August.

The state recently recruited a new academic leader, and it’s looking for a new superintendent who can create a more collaborative environment within the ASD’s portfolio of operators and schools. The district also underwent a major restructuring over the summer, cutting staff to curb costs and streamline roles as federal money ran out from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award.

Funding will be among the biggest long-term challenges for both the state-run district and the local iZones, said Zimmer.

While the Memphis’ iZone has shown initial success, it’s an expensive model that includes educator bonuses and adds an hour to the school day.  

The ASD also needs adequate funding, but Zimmer said that became harder when its schools did not produce early gains. “It takes up to five or six years before see we significant benefit from a program like the ASD,” he said. “The problem is that people don’t have the political patience to wait for it.”

McQueen emphasizes frequently that all of the state’s turnaround models work together. She and Gov. Bill Haslam remain steadfast in their support of the ASD — a point she drove home again on Wednesday when asked about the embattled district.

“It is the state’s most rigorous intervention as noted in Tennessee’s recently approved ESSA plan,” McQueen said, “and is clearly a critical part of the state’s accountability model.”

For more discussion about the five-year brief, you can read blog posts in Education Week from TERA and the State Department of Education.