With its one-year hiatus from school takeovers, Tennessee’s turnaround district is focusing on adding supports for its 33 existing schools in Memphis and Nashville, with an eye toward possible expansion in Chattanooga beginning in 2018.
Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.
ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson also met earlier this month with Shawn Joseph, the new superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. However, White said he did not know whether that meeting, which also included state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, included talks about possible further expansion in Nashville, where the ASD now operates two schools.
Most of Memphis’ lowest-performing schools have either been closed or are already under turnaround plans through the ASD or Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.
Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee’s fourth largest district, saw its standardized test scores decline in 2015 and has been in transition since March when Rick Smith resigned as superintendent. The city has launched a school improvement initiative known as Chattanooga 2.0 to increase pre-K access, literacy rates and career readiness.
Five Chattanooga schools were on Tennessee’s 2014 list of priority schools — those in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically — which would have made them eligible for state intervention:
- Brainerd High
- Dalewood Middle
- Orchard Knob Elementary
- Orchard Knob Middle
- Woodmore Elementary
The next priority school list is scheduled to be released next summer, but the state released a warning list earlier this year of schools in danger. In addition to the five Hamilton County on the 2014 list, this year’s list of schools in the bottom 5 percent includes:
- Clifton Hills Elementary
- The Howard School in Chattanooga
Nashville also is ripe for more state intervention. The city had 15 schools on the 2014 priority school list, including Neely’s Bend Middle, which the ASD took control of in 2015. This year’s warning list included 11 of those schools and four additional schools* in the bottom 5 percent:
- Kirkpatrick Elementary Enhanced Option
- Buena Vista Elementary Enhanced Option
- Napier Elementary Enhancement Option
- Inglewood Elementary
- John B Whitsitt Elementary
- Bailey STEM Magnet Middle
- Madison Middle
- Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High
- Robert Churchwell Elementary
- Jere Baxter Middle
- Joelton Middle
- Wright Middle*
- Warner Elementary Enhanced Option*
- McKissack Middle*
- Whites Creek High*
The state’s next priority list will be based on two years of test data instead of the normal three because of this year’s failed rollout of TNReady, the state’s new standardized test.
The ASD’s entrance into Chattanooga would be more deliberate and methodical than it was in Memphis, according to White. He said the district plans to learn from missteps in taking control of schools in Memphis, which prompted deep distrust between the state-run district and the community.
“Memphis did not have the benefit of a long runway,” he said of the ASD’s startup in 2012. “A longer runway allows us to deal with misconceptions on the front end. … Sometimes the best efforts are undermined by bad information.”
Talks with Chattanooga leaders won’t necessarily lead to school takeovers, emphasized Lauren Walker, ASD chief of staff.
“We want to get under the hood and understand the context there,” Walker said. “The (warning) list only gives a small picture of what’s happening.”
Hamilton County Schools has its own Innovation Zone for school turnaround work, but it has not seen the same academic gains as Shelby County Schools’ iZone.
While the warning list does not carry the same weight as the priority list, it offers districts a sneak peek at which schools might be eligible for state intervention beginning in 2018. One reason for new additions to the warning list is that the bar for the state’s bottom 5 percent has risen as priority schools see academic growth. In 2012, when the first list came out, the lowest percent of students learning at grade level at a school was 16.7. Last year, that number rose to 26 percent, according to state data aggregated by the ASD.
In announcing its school takeover hiatus in April, the ASD left room to open new schools during the interim. None are slated to open as new starts in 2016-17 school year, but that is a possibility for the following year. Charter operators under the ASD run five new-start schools, all in Memphis.
The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.
“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.