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Hopson says current I-Zone schools will not become charters

Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Tuesday that the district does not plan to convert its current Innovation Zone schools into charter schools and will seek funds to support and extend its current in-house school improvement efforts.

“I think there was an article that suggested that we were somehow going to take our I-Zone schools that are doing better than any turnaround schools and hand (them) over to charters. That’s absurd,” he said at a meeting of the district’s board.

Hopson said that the district is searching for ways to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent that are not currently part of the I-Zone or the state-run Achievement School District, another effort to improve bottom 5 percent schools. “There are still too many priority schools that don’t have treatment. We are finding different strategies to make sure every school has a treatment.”

District officials had proposed partnering with charter school operators as a potential “treatment” for such schools, as part of a new, not-yet-finalized district-wide charter school strategy. The idea is that the district would place charter operators in low-performing schools rather than having them open and draw students from around the district.

At least one current I-Zone school has been mentioned as a potential charter: Last spring, district chief innovation officer Brad Leon said that Curtis Weathers, the principal at new I-Zone school Hamilton High School and a former charter school leader, had already proposed the idea of converting the school into a charter with the school community. Weathers said in an email recently that the school is “very interested participated in such a transition.”

But at Tuesday’s meeting, backed by a slide that showed overall I-Zone scores improving at a faster rate than the scores in the ASD as a whole for three straight years (scores within each group of schools varied), Hopson said, “I want to be clear on that…when we said we want [schools] to go from bottom 5 to top 25 percent, this is the trajectory we want them to be on. If we have something working extremely well, we would not deviate from that.”

Hopson said that the district is looking for additional private and government funds to support and expand its current I-Zone approach. “I know there’s discussion about whether we can afford or sustain the I-Zone,” Hopson said. “We need to double down on things we know work. So we’re asking for additional investments. We’ve received some good news about SIG grants [federal funds that have supported the current I-Zone schools but are set to expire soon], and I’ve had some great conversations with Brad Leon about being aggressive to raise private dollars to support the I-Zone.”

Thirteen of the I-Zone’s 17 schools currently receive funds as part of the state’s federal School Improvement Grant, which pay for an extra hour of school, signing and performance bonuses for teachers, and other supports for the schools. But the original SIG grant does not include enough funds to add schools to the I-Zone in coming years. The federal education department recently released new guidelines for a new round of SIG grants, for which Tennessee might apply.

Schools in the I-Zone, which includes 17 schools that were determined by the Tennessee Department of Education in 2012 to be in the bottom 5 percent in the state, received new leaders, financial support for performance and signing bonuses for staff, longer school days, and some more flexibility over their academic programs—a set of moves the district has referred to as “empowerment” for school leaders. Schools in the ASD, on the other hand, are removed from traditional district governance entirely. All but five of its 21 schools in Memphis are currently run by charter schools.

But Shelby County Schools staff have said it’s hard to recruit enough effective teachers and principals in the current I-Zone model, and that the current efforts may not be financially sustainable. At a board committee meeting earlier this month, Leon and I-Zone regional superintendent Sharon Griffin suggested that charter schools, which tend to fundraise independently and recruit nationally, might be one solution.

Plans for all bottom 5 percent schools will be in the spotlight in coming weeks, as the ASD plans which schools it will take over next year and the district continues its planning for the coming school year.

Hopson said the district would continue to focus on priority schools. “Most of (the) schools that are priority schools did not get that way overnight. It’s been years of neglect. We will not neglect those schools. We will not outsource responsibility in those neighborhoods.”

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