When Antonio Burt left Memphis to jumpstart turnaround work in Florida schools known as “failure factories,” he took with him lessons from Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.
A founding iZone principal at Ford Road Elementary School, Burt is now back in Memphis to oversee the district’s heralded school turnaround program. Among his responsibilities: sustaining the iZone’s growth and taking some of its strategies to other struggling schools in Tennessee’s largest district.
Since starting as assistant superintendent in July, Burt has acquired 66 schools in his caseload. Twenty-three are iZone schools, and the rest are in or near the state’s bottom 10 percent on test scores. The latter group includes “critical focus schools” that have a chance to turn themselves around or be recommended for closure by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.
Chalkbeat sat down recently with Burt to talk about what iZone lessons worked in his last job with Pinellas County Schools near Tampa, as well as his plan for improving historically low-performing schools in Memphis. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How have you jumped into your new job, and what does it look like?
July was strictly around studying the data, formulating next moves, structuring teams, outlining programs that work, and also doing a lot of listening. You don’t want to implement things blind to what’s already in place, and you want to know if there are areas that you can build upon.
I looked at each school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and potential threats or barriers. Based on that analysis, I designed what my support would look like for the upcoming year. Some schools will see me six times this year, some four, and some twice.
I’m thinking a lot about alignment. When you implement two new curriculums (for English and math) in the same year, you have to make sure all departments and supports are aligned so you won’t have any gaps or fault lines. I have instructional leadership directors (ILDs) going into schools together with content advisers to make sure they are saying the same thing, using the same language, so we don’t send out mixed messages. We have more ILDs this year with smaller caseloads. They’re really the drivers of change when you think about the number of times they’re in the building supporting schools.
If you don’t codify best practices, you run the risk of having silos of success. So how can we align those best practices and have more systemic success across the entire zone? That’s a lot of my major work.
How did you get interested in turnaround work?
My first teaching position was at Cypress Middle School in North Memphis. I was 22 and fresh out of college. At that time, Cypress was probably the toughest middle school, or one of the toughest schools in the city. Huge overage grade population and roughly 60 to 70 percent of the building was receiving some type of SPED services. Plus, that area is considered one of the most impoverished zip codes in the United States.
Seeing how the kids responded with the right leadership and the right individuals in the building was like they were yearning for structure and support. But as a teacher, there was only so much I could do. The whole time, I was painting a picture in my head: If I was a leader, these are the things that I would do; these are things I wouldn’t do. Two years in, I knew I wanted to be a principal, and I started to align my work around that goal.
What iZone practices worked in your last job in Florida?
Some of what I did was iZone practices, but some were specific to what worked at Ford Road Elementary. For example, my content coaches did a curriculum diagnostic to match curriculum with the state standards and we created instructional focus calendars. We introduced certain standards earlier in the year. … We also had teachers give bi-weekly assessments. That got a lot of pushback, but I’m a strong advocate that you have to practice how you plan on playing. I need to know on a two-week basis where you actually are after we’ve delivered nine days of instruction. I knew it would work because I did it at Ford Road. That was the driver that helped the two lowest-performing schools in Florida jump from F to C because they had real-time data throughout the school year. Before that, they only had district assessments given every nine weeks or so. So, for nine weeks, we don’t know how your kids are performing, and your teachers don’t know. And remember, these are brand new teachers primarily in these schools. It’s important that we give them real-time data and help them learn how the data drives your instruction.
Before you left for Florida, you worked briefly with the five state-run Achievement Schools in Frayser. What differences did you see between the Achievement School District and the iZone?
The ASD had been through a lot of changes, which brought about inconsistency. The iZone was probably moving the needle on scale more regularly. The iZone had a little more consistency. You had some of those same leaders, and they would do well in those seven or eight schools before you add more. They built upon successes, whereas I think the ASD was still trying to figure it out.
Leadership drives change. If you’ve got a leader who is proven, who has done it, and who can actually walk you through it and show you how, that helps. In a city like Memphis, it’s already a mobile city. When you walk into schools, a kid will ask you, ‘Are you going to be here next year?’ That lets you know that kid has experienced a lot of faces inside the building. Whether it’s Shelby County, charter or whatever, kids will ask you that question. It’s a question that used to pain me as a principal. I think one of the things that contributed to the iZone’s success was consistency in human capital — from the teachers, from school leaders — and they were able to take lessons learned and implement those into the next year.
How does poverty affect the classroom? What is a school’s role in mitigating those challenges for its students?
Poverty is a societal ill that we can’t overlook. When you think of kids who may be coming to school from impoverished areas, sometimes the socialization piece may not be there because they often have to fend for themselves for meals, protection, shelter. Poverty also plays a factor in school readiness. You may enter school with a 30,000-word deficit in vocabulary, which means schools are playing catchup at an early age.
If we don’t address the gap early in the game, then the likelihood of the kid being successful in third grade and after is very slim. We have to make sure kids are entering third grade as close to grade level as possible, and that means making sure that we’re providing foundational literacy skills that may be missing.
Schools play a major role in reversing some of the views or actions that come out of poverty. It’s the school leader’s responsibility to have individuals inside of the building that show that you care and you’re there for the kid. You can do that in multiple ways like sponsoring after-school activities or engaging kids in the hallway. When you do that, you’re breaking a mindset of “no one cares.”
Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat does Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. Email your suggestions for future subjects to firstname.lastname@example.org.