Four low-performing Memphis schools taken over by Tennessee almost a decade ago will return to their local school district by next fall without achieving the massive improvements promised under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District.
The schools rejoining Shelby County Schools generally have continued to languish academically in or near the state’s bottom 5% — the threshold that made them eligible in the first place for takeover as part of the ambitious school turnaround program created in 2011.
In a joint announcement Monday, Tennessee Education Commissioner and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said the transition will include Frayser Achievement Elementary, Corning Achievement Elementary, Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, and Whitney Achievement Elementary.
More than 800 students and their families and 120 faculty and staff will be affected.
The announcement marks a seminal moment for the Achievement School District, which did not deliver on early promises to transform schools that the state took over in Memphis and Nashville beginning in 2012. With 27 schools and about 9,000 students, the so-called ASD remains Tennessee’s most intensive school improvement model, and Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has promised to revamp it.
Community leaders who saw their neighborhood schools taken over said the takeaway should be that takeovers don’t work. Collaboration between state and local leaders is best, they say.
“I’m happy these schools are moving back to Shelby County but, of course, disappointed that these schools are in no better shape despite all these drastic measures,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who has worked closely on ASD legislation. “I just hope we’ve learned some lessons and are moving away from this [takeover] model.”
Regenia Dowell, another community leader, was concerned about another transition without a clear plan.
“Just batting them back and forth between school systems isn’t the answer,” said Dowell, president of the Frayser community organization for parents, teachers, and students.
“Shelby County Schools is still a failing district, so you’re just taking them from one failing district to another failing district. If you’re giving them back to Shelby County, there should be a plan in place with accountability metrics for the public to see whether they’re being met,” she said.
The charter-heavy ASD was never intended as a forever home for low-performing schools, and a new state law charts pathways for their exit within 10 years of takeover. The paths include letting higher-performing charter schools apply to exit and move to another state-run district operated by Tennessee’s new charter school commission. This week, the commission is reviewing applications from three ASD charter schools in Memphis — Lester Prep, Libertas School of Memphis, and Cornerstone Prep’s Denver campus.
Schwinn acknowledged the state has fallen short of its school turnaround goals with the ASD, which mostly assigned schools to charter operators to do the work.
“Growth and achievement and progress is not anywhere close to what would be acceptable to a family,” she told reporters during a morning conference call. “It is not acceptable to me as a parent. And we have to be honest about that.”
Schwinn said the state is looking at a “very different strategy and approach” for the ASD moving forward. She also pledged to use one-time federal pandemic relief funds to give Shelby County Schools more resources and support for the four exiting ASD schools.
“Our commitment is to ensure we are learning the lessons, looking at best practices, and most importantly putting our best possible resources in place” to help students, she said.
Both the Frayser and Corning schools were part of the first six schools taken over in 2012, so their decade in the ASD will soon end.
Georgian Hills, which entered the ASD in 2013, has earned priority status to exit the state-run district by achieving top levels of academic growth on state tests for two consecutive years. However, the school remains in Tennessee’s bottom quartile for academic performance.
Whitney Elementary entered the ASD in 2013 too. The district’s interim superintendent, Lisa Settles, said the state decided to return that school to local control early since it’s part of the four Memphis schools run directly by the ASD. The ASD’s other 23 schools are operated by charter networks.
Ray called it “an exciting day” and said he looked forward to working with the state on a transition plan, which Tennessee officials said has been under development for about six months.
Neither state nor local leaders provided details about the plan except that the transition will be led by Thomas Rogers, assistant superintendent of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a locally run school turnaround initiative that launched the same year as the ASD.
“Definitely, we are leaning on his expertise to support us in that work around supporting families, around supporting students, around wraparound services,” said Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support for Shelby County Schools.
The iZone achieved stronger academic outcomes than the ASD in its early years but has struggled to maintain funding to do expensive turnaround work. The program operated under a more traditional district structure but gave their school leaders charter-like autonomy to choose their own curriculum, give bonuses to lure highly effective educators, and extend the school day.
Community advocates in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood, which is home to the affected schools, said they want to know more about the transition plan.
“The key is wraparound services,” said Charlie Caswell, outreach pastor at Impact Church. “You can’t just look at the problems through the lens of education. It’s about children and families impacted by trauma and a history of racism that has affected our community.”
Dowell, who leads the Frayser PTSA, added that the four schools being returned need a more consistent roster of faculty and staff.
“What I’ve seen is that it’s just a flux of in-and-out teachers and administrators and no stability for the schools,” she said. “Until you get stability, I don’t think you can get anywhere. I don’t care who runs it.”
Shelby County and ASD leaders will host several meetings for affected families and staff to learn about the transition and ask questions. The first is set for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Trezevant High School. The second will be held sometime in January.
Chalkbeat reporter Samantha West contributed to this story.