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ASD, SCS work to mend takeover rift

Ian Buchanan, director of strategic partnerships for the Achievement School District, speaks to parents and students during Monday's first community meeting during the six-week school takeover matching process.
Ian Buchanan, director of strategic partnerships for the Achievement School District, speaks to parents and students during Monday's first community meeting during the six-week school takeover matching process.
Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Earlier this fall, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s final stop on his national back-to-school tour was here in the Bluff City, where he and his staff were welcomed by cheering students in the Shelby County Schools-led iZone and the state-led Achievement School District, two dramatic turnaround efforts funded mostly by federal money.

“You guys can rock this world,” Duncan told Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and ASD leader Chris Barbic. “If Memphis can fundamentally break through, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the country?”

Just two months later, Hopson and Barbic are at odds over how to go about turning around another 50 chronically-underperforming schools, where, in some instances, only a few dozen students can read at grade level. Who should get which schools? Which schools should get intervention first? Which should be handed over to charter schools?

Barbic and Hopson said last week they will meet soon to answer those questions. The meetings may be driven in part by a series of protests this fall by parents, teachers, and politicians over a takeover process from which three charter schools abruptly retreated.

A three-year plan crafted by Hopson and Barbic could have long-term implications for how turnaround efforts in Memphis will look going forward.

While the ASD’s ability to take over schools academically ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools is protected by state law the two districts have until now benefitted from a cordial relationship.

Despite some recent sniping, a strong relationship going forward would be in their mutual best interest. Neither district has met its lofty academic goals and both have struggled with parental support and trust. Strong relationships with families are key to recruiting and retaining students and the tax dollars that come with them.

Loss of students hurts SCS

That’s vitally important to Shelby County Schools, which lost more than 32,000 students this past summer when six municipalities split from the district to create their own school systems. The loss of students meant the district had to cut $240 million worth of services and close 10 schools to consolidate resources. Hundreds of teachers were laid off. Going forward, each school Shelby County loses to the ASD will further incrementally erode its financial viability.

Every time the ASD takes over a school– 22 so far with plans to take over six more next year – the district loses students in it, and has to find new positions for many of the teachers and principals sent there to turn the schools around.

“Right now everything is just open ended,” said Teresa Jones, the chair of the Shelby County Schools board. ” We as a district cannot make plans where to best focus our efforts. We don’t know who we’re going to have next year. In order to bring any type of stability to the children of this district, we cannot have every year eight to 10 schools that are leaving the district.”

Teachers and politicians have asked the district to expand its iZone, a federally-funded initiative that, similar to the ASD, can replace staff and get flexibilities from state laws. Those schools have made large gains in recent years.

Unlike the ASD, iZone schools have traditionally stayed under the control of the district. That’s been debated amongst administrators in recent months since a large portion of federal iZone funds ran dry. Administrators said they will expand the iZone but will have to close schools in order to do so.

Agreement would benefit ASD as well

Meanwhile the ASD also stands to benefit from an agreed-upon three-year takeover plan with Shelby County Schools. The ASD, too, has struggled to meet its stated goal of taking schools in the bottom 5 percent and bringing them into the top 25 percent within five years. While some charter schools hired by the ASD have seen scores dramatically increase, other charters have seen scores drop since the ASD assumed control.

And schools directly run by the ASD in Frayser, which were the first schools the district took over, in 2012, have continued to struggle with high teacher and principal turnover and low test scores.

Citing those test scores, parents and community activists, organizing for the first time this year, have called for a moratorium on the ASD’s expansion.

The ASD’s “matching process” with charter operators has also hit an especially rough patch. Last week Green Dot pulled out of an agreement to take over Raleigh-Egypt High School next year after community protests. Two other charter operators pulled out of their agreements last month, because they said they didn’t have the resources to take on more schools.

Opening up the process

Since the community protests, Hopson and Barbic have publicly exchanged barbs over the matching process. Hopson has said that he didn’t agree with the final list of schools that were announced, especially with Raleigh-Egypt High School, where he recently placed a new principal.

Barbic has pointed out that state law allows the ASD to choose which schools it will take over.

“We don’t have to do a matching process, but we have chosen to,” Barbic told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “While they are beating us up for it, if we weren’t doing it, they would be beating us up for not doing it.”

Bickering aside, members of the ASD and Shelby County leadership team said in extensive interviews with Chalkbeat that they intensified their efforts this year to work together on takeover plans. They held weekly conference calls and meetings, facilitated by an outside group, from late August through mid-October.

What emerged from this process was a set of broad criteria the ASD would use to determine which schools to take over in 2015. But the negotiations didn’t include an agreement with Shelby County Schools about which schools the ASD would take over, officials from both districts said. That decision remained exclusively with ASD.

“We have the authority to unilaterally bring schools into the ASD,” said Malika Anderson, the ASD’s chief portfolio officer. ” We rejected that approach because we’re thinking longer term. Our schools need a healthy start to the turnaround process and sustainability depends on buy-in and support from all of the stakeholders–SCS, parents, community members–to help the turnaround get off the ground and keep going successfully.”

Brad Leon, Shelby County Schools’ chief innovation officer, agreed. “We want them to be aware of the whole 360 picture,” he said.

Barbic and Hopson have been tight-lipped about how specific a three-year plan they want to create will be. Barbic said he hopes a plan will help avoid charters pulling out at the last minute and quell community protests. Hopson said he wants to communicate now with family members at schools vulnerable to takeover about the state of their schools, and work to avoid takeover with the other schools. He said he will hold a series of meetings at 20 of those schools starting in January.

Barbic says the ASD-SCS relationship is still cordial. He speaks to Hopson daily and recently took board member Jones on a tour of Cornerstone Prep.

“I was impressed, but I’m equally impressed with our schools, too,” Jones quipped shortly after the visit.

The ASD will make its final decision on which schools to take over next year on Dec. 12.

For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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