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McQueen: If Memphis school leaders won’t convert American Way to a charter, the state will

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her classroom tour of the state.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her classroom tour of the state.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Two days after Memphis leaders voted to move a long-struggling school into the district’s highly regarded turnaround program, the state’s top education official said that’s not enough to deter her plan to take over the school.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

“The interventions that we’ve put forward would take place during 2019-20,” McQueen told reporters during a visit to Middle College High School in Memphis. “We will move forward … and begin the planning process for that.”

The tussle over American Way is the latest battle between Shelby County Schools and the state over how to improve schools that don’t perform well on state tests.

On Tuesday, the Memphis school board voted to move American Way to the Innovation Zone, rather than convert it to a charter school under its own oversight. The Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, pumps extra state and local resources into low-performing schools, including teacher coaches and an extended school day.

In recent years, the state would not take over a struggling school if Memphis leaders moved it into the iZone, a program created under state law. But that’s changed under Tennessee’s new accountability plan, McQueen said.

School board members argued they want to move earlier than the state to change the status of American Way. And they noted that the iZone has a better track record of school improvement than the state’s ASD.

McQueen promised “continued conversation” with Memphis leaders, but said the state won’t change course.

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

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