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Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County's Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.

Ford Road Elementary is among schools in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, a program that stands to benefit from money headed to the district as part of a settlement with the city of Memphis.

Shelby County and Nashville reveal plan to use charters to help improve iZone schools

For the first time, the Innovation departments of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are planning to turn some of their lowest-performing schools over to charter school operators, signaling a shift in strategy.

Until now, the Innovation Zones in Memphis and Nashville had granted schools some freedom from requirements in areas like scheduling and staffing in an effort to dramatically improve students’ academic performance, but had retained district management over their schools. That stood in contrast to the state-run Achievement School District, which relied on charter takeovers as its central school-improvement strategy.

Now, leaders in both districts argue that having charter school operators run some of the Innovation Zone will help attract new talent and help improve chronically-underperforming schools for the long-run.

“We have to figure out how to improve the overall pool of leaders rather than shifting great people around,” said Bradley Leon, Shelby County Schools’ chief innovation officer. “More than 50 percent of schools in the district are in the bottom 10 percent in the state. If we’re shifting people in the system, we’re not solving the problem.”

The shift in approach would accelerate the growth of the already booming charter school sector in Tennessee. The state passed a law in 2002 permitting the schools, which are publicly funded and operated by independent nonprofits. The law has been progressively loosened: Caps on the number of charters per district and restrictions on who could attend have been removed. There are 39 charter schools in Shelby County this year and will be 44 next year. Metro Nashville Public Schools has 19 such schools. The state-run Achievement School District also authorizes charter schools, and a bill currently under consideration would allow the state board of education to as well.

Not everyone is convinced that charter operators are more sustainable or effective than traditional public schools, and some have raised concern about charters’ impact on districts’ finances and ability to manage schools. “I think it’s critical, if the iZone is going to use this as a strategy, that they’re real clear about what it is that that operator can do that the local district cannot do,” said Betty Mallott, a former school board member in Shelby County. “Charter schools aren’t a panacea.”

“I’m not against charter schools,” said Chris Caldwell, a Shelby County board member. “But I want to make sure we’re not jumping on the latest craze.”

New strategy for iZones

Innovation Zones, or iZones, like the ASD, can take in any school ranked in the bottom five percent in the state, dubbed “priority schools,” and are charged with improving them so that they are in the top 25 percent in the state. Schools in both Nashville and Memphis are eligible for the interventions: Sixty-eight of the state’s 83 priority schools are in Memphis and six were in Nashville. A new set of schools will be on that list this fall, when the state re-runs its list.

Schools currently in Shelby County and Nashville’s iZones are run by the district but have “charter-like” qualities. The schools have longer school days and years. Principals have more control over their budgets, who they hire and what programs they use.

The Shelby County district’s initial budget for 2014-15 references a proposal to bring in independent operators to run the iZone schools. The district’s Innovation Zone has 13 schools this year and will include 17 Memphis schools next year. The district aims to extend iZone-like control to principals districtwide by 2020.

No iZone school would be run as a charter school until the 2015-16 school year at the earliest, Leon said, and all charters would be charged with taking over an entire school rather than “phasing in” grade by grade.

In Nashville, the district’s “Request for Proposals for New Schools” for 2014-15 includes a request for charter operators interested in converting district schools to charter schools as part of its Department of Innovation, which currently has a 6-school Innovation Zone within a 10-school “innovation cluster.”

New charters interested in taking over district schools would be placed in schools that have been dubbed “Target,” or in need of improvement, for three years. Nashville does not plan to convert its existing iZone schools to charters, said Alan Coverstone, the director of the Nashville district’s office of innovation, “unless one of the schools fails.”

Funding and Neighborhood Schools

The iZone programs are currently funded largely through a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), which will eventually expire; but the districts plan to continue the programs after the grant has gone away.

For instance, the four schools new to Shelby County’s iZone next year will not receive any SIG funding. The district is committing nearly $1 million to funding signing bonuses for teachers and longer school days. That investment nearly doubles the district’s spending on the iZone, from $768,000 in 2013-14 to $1.9 million in 2014-15.

Neither district specified how many schools might eventually be run by charter schools or what the budget implications of the plans would be. Leon said that the specific plans would be determined by the needs of the schools that are eventually selected to become part of the Innovation Zone.

But charter schools, which have control over their budgets and days, would have the ability to implement programs similar to those currently labeled as iZone schools even without the additional funds.

Charter schools often recruit students who would otherwise attend traditional public schools, and state and local funding follows students to the schools, with the exception of a fee paid to the district. Districts then must adjust central office and school staff and programs to reflect the smaller enrollment. 
The schools are sometimes described as being “in competition” with the regular public schools: The idea is that increased flexibility could help create better schools; that the state’s accountability system will help identify those schools that are thriving and those that are struggling; that parents will choose the best schools; and that competition will help all schools improve.

Placing charter schools into district buildings would mirror one of the more unique aspects of the ASD: While most Tennessee charter schools have traditionally started up from scratch and recruited students from nearby schools, charter operators placed by the district in I-Zone schools, like most charters run by the ASD, would be neighborhood schools, responsible for educating all students zoned to the neighborhood. 

Christine Campbell, a senior research analyst and policy director for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, said in Shelby County, “there’s a lot of competition for enrollment,” she said. “Rather than have charters set up wherever they feel like, this way, the district says, come in this neighborhood, we need a high quality option.”

Turning district schools into charter schools has at times proven challenging for the ASD, however: Communities have protested the takeovers and the operation of schools by new groups. Others have raised concerns about the fact that the some of the charter schools are run by groups from outside Memphis, about practices in the schools and about the schools’ teachers, who are in many cases recruited through Teach For America or other alternative certification programs and who are perceived by some of the district’s long-time teachers as a threat to their employment.

Shift in approach

“Restarting” a priority school as a charter operator has always been a possible approach to school improvement funded by the SIG grants. “I-Zone innovation possibilities are quite flexible, and left to the discretion of the school district,” said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education. “The whole point is that we felt districts were best positioned to implement some of these reforms, so we wanted to empower them to do so. Their charge was to do whatever it takes to turn those schools around.”

But this would be the first time the strategy had been used by Shelby County Schools.

Katrina E. Bulkley, a professor of education leadership at Montclair State University, in Montclair, N.J., said that districts placing charter operators in low-performing schools is becoming more common around the country. But, she said, caution might be warranted: “These are not short-term changes. These are changes that are affecting the capacity of a district central office to manage schools.” 

Research is mixed on the effectiveness of charter schools; a study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes  (CREDO) found that just 17 percent provided better educations to their students than regular public schools. In Shelby County, three charter schools rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools and named priority schools. Other research has highlighted strong academic results in some charter operators.

Some claim charter schools drain resources from the regular district and do not serve some of the “hardest-to-educate” students: Nashville school board member Will Pinkston described charter schools and the Tennessee Charter School Center, which funds and supports the schools, as a “threat to public education” in a letter to Nashville’s city government.

Leon framed charters as an option, rather than as competitors for district schools. “My perspective is, charter schools are Shelby County Schools,” he said.


School turnaround is notoriously difficult, and sustaining it is more difficult still. The districts’ iZones have ambitious goals: In Shelby County, for instance, the schools aim to reduce the gap between the schools’ performance and schools in the 75th percentile by 20 percent each year. Administrators have said the iZone aims to create a “national proof point for what is possible.”  

Staffing schools with such ambitious goals and demanding school days can be a challenge. “Some of the early adopters of these ideas were in places like Chicago or New York where there was a tremendous amount of expertise already,” said Montclair’s Bulkley. “When you look at some of the areas where it’s happening now, there isn’t as much pre-existing capacity, and it’s mostly in the district.”

Coverstone said charter schools, which bring in their own teachers and leadership staff, would be a shift in the district’s approach to school improvement. “Traditionally, we got these big grants, we put a lot of extra adults in the building, and got off the list, but eventually, you drift back,” he said. Now we wonder, how can we change operations so it’s a sustainable change.”

In Shelby County, Leon said, concentrating so many of the district’s highest-performing leaders and teachers in the iZone has raised concerns about the the schools they left behind. 

“We need to figure out ways to give teachers and leaders more empowerment. That matters more than the label you put on the school,” he said. “We want to add to the great pool of people,” Leon said.

Leon used the first school that might become a charter, Hamilton High School, as an example. Curtis Weathers, who was recently hired to be the school’s principal, previously ran a high-performing charter school in the city and has already broached converting the school into a charter with the school community.

“For Curtis, it’s important he has maximum empowerment,” Leon said. “As a system we should be open to that to get someone phenomenal like Curtis.”

Leon said the process of converting the school to a charter would be “very public” and would be discussed at future board meetings.

Former board member Mallot said Shelby County needs to find new talent for its schools. But she raised the same question about charter schools the district says the new plans will help solve. “It is tremendous when you can pull a bunch of young teachers together, a young leader, and they’re all enthusiastic. But the question is, is it scalable, is it sustainable.”