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Chris Gabrieli, left, is the CEO of Empower Schools.

Chris Gabrieli, left, is the CEO of Empower Schools.

Eric Haynes/Edward M. Kennedy Institute.

‘A revolutionary level of trust’: Empower Schools CEO on how Tennessee could partner to turn around Chattanooga schools

When state education officials met Thursday with Chattanooga leaders to discuss their newest idea for how to improve struggling schools there, they weren’t alone.

In the room was Chris Gabrieli, the architect of the “Empowerment Zone” in Springfield, Massachusetts — the model for what could happen in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city. State officials would call their version a “partnership zone.”

Gabrieli is working with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to help local officials understand the approach, in which clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. He’s also interested in helping the city if it decides to go forward with the zone, one of several options for intervening in schools that have struggled the longest.

“We’ve made it clear we’d be in a position to help if they say yes,” Gabrieli said.

Chalkbeat sat down with Gabrieli at this week’s New Schools Venture Fund Summit in California. Here are the highlights. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Chalkbeat: What is the partnership model and what is your role in bringing it to Tennessee?

Gabrieli: Empower Schools, the nonprofit I’m the CEO of, works in partnership with communities to help them consider how new structures and approaches could allow them to get schools they want and the results their students need.

Communities often want schools that, for example, follow the existing student assignment patterns. Those are usually very important to the community and thought through for years. Often, with high schools, there’s a huge commitment from the community and it’s a place people care about. And they want to see that school continue in some similar fashion.

So there are things people want out of their schools that they want to preserve, but I think in some cases they know they need to do some things differently to get the results.

So how could you structure something like that? Our work is just to partner with them to see what a pathway to setting up a structure like that could be — one that could bring more change, more boldness, more energy, at each school while still preserving the role of that school as a member of that school district.

Where the state has such strong interest, as it does in Tennessee, with the outcome of these schools — having at least two of them be eligible to be taken over by the ASD — rather than having the state take an independent action, it can really partner with the district. In Tennessee, they’re calling it partnership zone. The partnership is between the state and the district. And people can scoff, say it’s somewhat involuntary of a partnership. Maybe. But I would say, instead of the state unilaterally acting, which it has the authority to do, it is saying, let’s together look at what the best plan is.

If people can get away from that focus on power and instead focusing more on what are the right structures, I think the chance for our students, usually disadvantaged students, goes higher. Our role is to show people it’s been done elsewhere.

What edge does this model have on others that have fallen short in Tennessee and beyond?

There are always really good things to build on. And Chattanooga has some really good things: really good educators, good programs that have got some momentum. We never find, even in schools that are really struggling, that it’s the case that no one good is being tried and nobody good is there. That’s a parody. But clearly it’s not working and changing fast enough in those places.

When you say you’re just going to take a school over, close it, bring in a charter operator, and start anew, you’re just saying, nothing was working. Nobody who was involved will probably be kept on. Somehow, somebody from outside will do better. I understand that theory, but people feel like there’s a lot of friction cost in that, a lot of inefficiencies, a lot of things missed about what’s going on. On the other hand, if it was really going well enough, the state wouldn’t be flagging these schools as not objectively delivering high enough outcomes for students. People in the districts know it.

So, unlocking bolder change, but doing it in the context of giving the benefit of the doubt to a lot of the existing people and programs is what’s different.

How does this compare to to the Innovation Zone in Shelby County and the Achievement School District, two high-profile school improvement efforts that are already underway?

These schools were in an I Zone in Hamilton County. They have the ability to get some different conditions, but these I Zones don’t have a stable, independent governing structure. The schools are still reporting to the district.

In Springfield, for example, the district delegates operational and managerial authority to the zone and the staff they hire. The I Zone is not a delegated authority situation. They’re saying, we ourselves are going to choose to do some things differently, and we run them still, versus, we know things might need to let things work differently and we’re choosing to allow others to run these schools. And we’re a part of it, but it’s not us.

One thing that’s different from an I Zone is that we would encourage that board, and we have encouraged the board in Springfield, to also be willing to make choices and bring in totally different programs at schools that are not working. In Springfield, of the nine schools this year, three are run by very different people from outside. Six are run by people from there. They’ve had a chance to basically restart. In one case it’s an organization, a nonprofit operator, and in two cases it’s individuals who came in and are building a whole new school. They’re hiring entirely new people, taking an entirely different approach.

So, improvement is the top strategy. But change where it’s needed is something we think zoned boards have to have the backbone to do. Getting that blend right is important.

To some degree, the ASD is, change ‘em all. To some degree, an I Zone is, improve ‘em all. We say, improve as many as we can and change the ones we can’t. That’s what most people want. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to people if we can. And if they aren’t getting it done, they don’t get an infinite window.

What are the key elements of the partnership model and what could change in schools?

Three key pieces. One is that there would be an independent board, with the majority of the folks not being elected officials but independent folks — ideally who are from same community — who can make a fresh set of choices and ensure the schools’ autonomy continues. With the minority of the board being the elected and appointed officials. Having members of the school board is a very good idea. These are still Hamilton County schools.

The second is a clear contract that would assign most of the money and those key levers: who gets hired, what curriculum is used, what schedule is followed, what the budget is. That’s set at the zone level and the school level.

In Tennessee, there isn’t the third element of the collective bargaining process. It’s those two.

That structure allows the schools to then go through the redesign process to say, what curriculum do we need to add? How do we raise teacher skills? What hours should we operate? With support from partners.

How it exactly it would work in Chattanooga would be different than how it exactly works in Springfield, but the elements would be the same ones to be settled. The big two would be allocation of financial resources — how much of the money per student goes to the schools to be used flexibly and how much stays with the district for the use of the buildings and other supports — and what decision-making authorities are given over to the zone.

Along with that would be the performance milestones the zone would have to make to continue to go on. This is all about performance. Individual schools have to perform and the zone has to work. If the zone doesn’t work, it should go away. The board really has to be accountable.

In Lawrence [Massachusetts] — where we were quite involved, but the structure was different — and in Springfield, where the structure would be very similar — we’ve seen that, with support from outside, with partners helping, a lot of existing people have plenty of appetite to take on the kind of things that need to be done.

A simple example is the school schedule. There’s lots of data that show that for high-poverty kids, who often have few great choices outside the school building for academic or non-academic opportunities, a longer school day — that allows them to get more core academics and more arts, music, drama, sports — is a really important idea. And it also means giving teachers more time to work together, to collaborate, to use data. That’s also a good idea. But usually traditions of district structures and compensation lock in an outdated calendar.

So one of the autonomies schools get in any zone we’d want to be a part of is the ability to set the right school schedule. It doesn’t have to be identical for each school. But generally, if you want kids to succeed, you need more time. That also means you need to pay teachers more for that. That’s fair. Saying, do the same job for more hours for no more pay doesn’t strike working adults as fair. So you’ve got to have more resource flexibility. These all flow together into something where you can work faster and better.

Isn’t it possible that this kind of shared governance model might just be creating yet another layer of bureaucracy?

This usually comes out of circumstance of underperformance, so these schools have a lot of anxiety. They’ve been a part of innovation zones, and they wonder, is this the next thing? We’re trying to say, you tell us what you think it would take to succeed. Frankly, we don’t often ask in education, what do you need. We tend to say, new program! Personalized learning! Singapore math!

Part of what we’re able to do is expose them to how this has played out in other schools. Some remain concerned that whatever it is, it might be bad. Others react and say, this would be really different. We could rise to this. We like the chance to do new things.

When you move most of the money and decisionmaking all the way to the school, it’s the least bureaucratic possible. The presence of the board is in part to make sure it happens. There’s a lot of policymaking about schools that happens very far from schools. One of the things we really encourage, is to say, OK, let’s make decisions at the school.

In Springfield, how can they afford to pay [teachers] more for more time without there being more state money going in? The answer is, they get 85 percent of per-pupil funding and can make those decisions. It feels like the opposite of bureaucracy. We had one principal and their teacher talking to their governor, who had come to visit the school. They told him, we’re thinking of changing to have one fewer janitor and another teacher. I don’t think that’s bureaucratic.

If the board of this entity becomes very involved and micromanages, it would be bureaucracy. If they empower schools — and my organization is called Empower Schools — it feels the opposite. It’s a revolutionary level of trust.

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