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Innovation Zone financially unsustainable, SCS officials say

Students at Ford Road Elementary, which is part of the district's Innovation Zone.
Students at Ford Road Elementary, which is part of the district's Innovation Zone.
J. Zubrzycki

Shelby County Schools administrators told board members Thursday it would cost $28.5 million over the course of three years to expand efforts to turn around low-performing schools in its Innovation Zone—and that bringing in charter schools, which fundraise on their own, might be a more efficient strategy for the district.

“The current model is not sustainable,” said Chris Caldwell.

The district is determining how to continue and expand its turnaround efforts after the cessation of federal School Improvement Grant funds which had supported three years of Innovation Zone schools.

At a board meeting earlier this summer, Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, made a presentation suggesting that the district recruit charter schools to take over the schools, taking a page from the state-run Achievement School District.

That suggestion has been met with skepticism by several board members, who have noted that the district’s current Innovation Zone Schools have had more consistently strong academic results than the state-run charters.

The district’s Innovation Zone, which had 13 schools last year, has earned accolades locally and nationwide: All but one of its schools earned a five, the state’s highest ranking for student growth as determined by state standardized tests, last school year. Earlier this week, Lionel Cable, an Innovation Zone principal, participated in a panel with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan focused on school turnaround efforts.

But officials said extending that effort would be difficult. “In 2015-16, if we didn’t add any schools it’d be $7.2 million dollars to do what we’ve done,” Leon said. He showed a slide showing that with planned expansion of four schools per year, the district would spend $9.5 million in 2016-17 and $11.67 million the year after, for expenses that included performance and signing bonuses, Innovation Zone central office support, and teacher and substitute salaries for the extended school day.

Board member Scott McCormick questioned whether the finances depicted on the board were realistic. The slide showed expenses for signing bonuses increasing each year, when the district plans to add the same number of schools each year. The presenters did not have an answer for the concern.

Board chair Kevin Woods asked if there were some components of the district’s strategies in Innovation Zones that could be expanded without financial commitment from the district. “Can we look at schools that did well without bonuses?…Do some teachers want to come work at these schools because they just want to be with a great leader?” He said the prestige of the Innovation Zone might be enough of an appeal to recruit teachers.

Sharon Griffin, the regional superintendent for the district’s the Innovation Zone, said the district was pulling that information.

Board member Chris Caldwell asked why charter schools would be a more efficient solution. “Are they getting money from sources we can’t tap into?” He requested that the department provide a cost-per-school of the interventions.

“We know there are charters that do robust fundraising on the own,” Leon said. “The proposal wasn’t to invest in charters—it was that we partner with them.”

A line item marked “Teacher Town” drew particular attention from board members. The I-Zone had $261,000 budgeted for 2015-16 and $454,000 in subsequent years.

“Teacher Town is an effort to make sure priority schools have leadership talent they need in classroom and at school level,” Leon said. “There’s a recruitment aspect to it—working to support things like Teach For America—and then it finds different providers for PD [professional development]. It’s also building energy and excitement in Memphis as a place to be.”

Leon said the Teacher Town effort was replacing some efforts that had previously been funded by the Gates Foundation’s Teacher Leader Effectiveness Initiative.

“It’s not a knock on the I-Zone, but we have to unpack the budget better than this. I shouldn’t have to ask what half a million for Teacher Town is—is that employees, professional development, what is it?” Woods said.

Leon and Griffin also laid out the the strategies they said helped Innovation Zone schools: principal empowerment, extended learning time, additional teachers, and academic supports were at the root of the schools’ success. They said that schools still needed to give more control over budgets to principals and further training on the I-Zone’s standards.

I-Zone schools require teachers to have earned a level 3 on their evaluations. Some new teachers are also hired as part of the I-Zone. They said, however, that culture fit is also important. “Even if you’re a level 5 teacher but you’re not a right fit for that school, you don’t have a right to that job,” Leon said.

Board member Shante Avant asked about particular programs that might be able to be expanded throughout the district.

“We’ve invested in having best leaders and teachers,” said Griffin. “It’s not a particular program—it’s the skill sets of teachers and leaders and what they’re doing.”

Correction: This article initially misspelled the name of and misstated the title of Sharon Griffin. Ms. Griffin is a regional superintendent in the district.

The article also misattributed a quote. Board member Chris Caldwell, not administrator Bradley Leon, said that the Innovation Zone approach was unsustainable. The post and headline have been updated to reflect that change. We regret the error.

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