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How one Memphis school is caught in the crosshairs of state and local improvement efforts

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Five months after the Tennessee Department of Education threatened a state takeover of American Way Middle School if Shelby County Schools did not hand it over to a charter organization, the future of that chronically low-performing school remains in limbo.

The state has not yet decided whether it will take over American Way, according to a state spokeswoman.

Shelby County Schools started the school year with American Way as its newest addition to the Innovation Zone. The district has high hopes that its proven school improvement model will turn things around for the Memphis middle school.

“We’re going about our business not thinking about the state,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said, standing in American Way’s entryway on Aug. 6, the first day of school. “All of our students deserve to have a great school and that’s our mindset here. … We have a strong record of success in the iZone.”

The fate of American Way speaks to a larger question in Tennessee: What is the best way to boost learning at schools with high concentrations of students living in poverty and students of color?

One track is the iZone, a local district-led program that has resulted in significant improvement on state tests. Another is the state-run Achievement Schools District, which relies heavily on charter organizations to improve schools. However, the schools it has taken over are doing no better than low-performing schools that were left out of both programs, researchers say.

In February, state education officials introduced a third option: turn American Way over to a nonprofit charter organization that would be overseen by the local district. If Shelby County Schools refused, the state-run district would take it over. But Shelby County Schools chose instead to add the school to its own iZone, something leaders had been considering for at least 10 months.

Making the decision more complicated: If the state decides to take over the school, the department of education would be rejecting a plan devised by Sharon Griffin, the leader who was later hired by the state to promote school improvement statewide.

Sharon Griffin
Sharon Griffin
SCS

When Griffin was chief of schools for Shelby County Schools, her team planned American Way’s transition into the iZone, which involves replacing the school leader, some teachers, and adding an extra hour to the school day along with resources like food pantries and clothes closets for low-income families.

The state tapped her in May to lead the Achievement School District and to oversee strategies to boost low-performing schools across the state.

Additionally, the state’s options for American Way were a result of a shift in strategy to be more collaborative with districts. The less heavy-handed approach was evident in the state’s improvement plans for 21 schools announced in February. American Way was the only school slated for takeover after years of taking over several at once with barely any recourse for the district.

Hopson said that under Griffin’s leadership, he expects the state would “certainly be open to giving us the time we need to turn the school around.”

“Parents are buying in, faculty is buying in,” he said. “So, we think given our track record with the iZone, we certainly deserve a shot to turn this school around.”

Hopson said as much in March, when he sent a letter asking the state to hold off on the takeover. He also said he was unaware of charter organizations that have been successful at improving middle schools.

American Way Middle School
American Way Middle School
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

This is not the first time American Way Middle has been targeted for state takeover. The school has been eligible to enter the state-run Achievement School District since 2012, when it appeared on the state’s “priority list” of schools performing in the bottom 5 percent, statewide.

But after adamant pushback from hundreds of parents and students, an advisory group recommended American Way stay under Shelby County Schools control in 2014. The charter organization originally slated to take over the school, YES Prep, eventually backed out of another school at the eleventh hour.

Without any sort of intervention, American Way’s test scores have not been growing as fast as students who posted similar scores around the state. There was some improvement last year in English and science, but fewer than 5 percent of students tested at grade level in math.

The school did, however, show enough progress in 2015 to escape state takeover under a state law to shield schools that showed significant growth.

The state spokeswoman said there is “no specific timeline” on when a decision would be made about its involvement in American Way.

Editor’s note: Aug. 23, 2018: A previous version of this story said the state was reviewing the Shelby County Schools district plan for American Way Middle. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the state has not yet received that plan.

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