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Seven schools, including three in Memphis, exit Tennessee’s toughest school improvement list

Elementary school students stand in two lines in a hallway

Libertas School of Memphis is one of seven schools exiting Tennessee’s “priority” list of low-performing schools in 2021.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

Seven of 79 Tennessee schools flagged for poor academic performance in 2018 dropped off the state’s “priority list” of bottom-performing schools this year when the Tennessee Department of Education unveiled its 2020-21 school accountability lists Tuesday. 

Three of the exiting schools are in Memphis, the epicenter of the state’s school improvement work for the last decade.

Sheffield Elementary, part of Shelby County Schools, and two charter schools in the state-run Achievement School District, Libertas and Cornerstone Prep Denver Campus, moved off of the priority list of schools that rank academically in the state’s bottom 5%. 

The list is usually met with trepidation from school leaders of struggling schools. But because the legislature voted in January to remove any potentially negative consequences from test scores during a second pandemic year, schools can’t be added — only removed. 

Priority status makes schools eligible for the state’s most intense interventions, including possible takeover by the Achievement School District, or ASD, which has mostly assigned struggling schools to charter networks since its launch in 2012.

Priority schools could come off of the list this year if their test scores were good enough. Those schools had to rank in the state’s 15th percentile for the recent academic year or the state’s 10th percentile for two straight testing years. They also could exit by earning one of two top designations for academic growth in math and reading for two straight years. 

“These schools have shown how Tennessee districts and schools can overcome a variety of challenges including a global pandemic that impacted the past several months, including the majority of the 2020-21 school year,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement.

Tennessee’s first pandemic test scores, released last month, showed a proficiency decline of 5 percentage points since 2019, the last time that public school students took standardized tests under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.

But while the state’s overall scores went down, some schools did well — or well enough to improve their state proficiency ranking by percentile. Others showed a high level of growth from 2019 to 2021 under the state’s accountability model known as TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

Libertas School in Memphis was able to leave the priority list because of its performance in both proficiency and growth. The former Brookemeade Elementary School was in the state’s bottom 1% when the ASD took it over in 2015 from Shelby County Schools. Now called Libertas, the Montessori school reached the state’s 25th percentile in proficiency on the most recent tests. Libertas, which serves 485 students from the Memphis Frayser community, also ranked at the top level for student growth.

“What this means is that children in marginalized neighborhoods like Frayser can, in fact, achieve at incredibly high levels and grow extraordinarily to achieve their dreams,” said Bob Nardo, the school’s founder.

Sheffield Elementary, which is part of Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone turnaround program, exited the priority list by exceeding the 10th percentile in proficiency for two consecutive testing years. 

Tennessee released its first list of 83 priority schools in 2012, with 69 of those in Memphis. Only 43 Memphis schools made the state’s last priority list in 2018, which added more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson. High schools with a graduation rate of less than 67% also could be placed on priority status.

Pending new state or federal accountability waivers or actions, Tennessee’s next priority list is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2022, following state testing next spring.

Exits from this year’s list include two schools in Chattanooga, one in Nashville, and one in Campbell County.

Schools Exiting the Priority and Comprehensive Support and Improvement List
District School
Campbell County Jellico Elementary
Davidson County Rosebank Elementary
Hamilton County Clifton Hills Elementary
Hamilton County Woodmore Elementary
Shelby County Sheffield Elementary
Achievement School District Libertas School
Achievement School District Cornerstone Prep Denver Campus
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Annie Fu, Chalkbeat

In response to a 2015 federal education law, Tennessee added two other designations aimed at holding schools accountable. Both lists also had exits this year.

State officials said 108 of 145 schools from 57 districts met the criteria to move off of the state’s list of schools needing targeted support and resources to close achievement gaps among student groups based on race, poverty, disabilities, and language.

Schools Exiting the Targeted Support and Improvement List
District School
Anderson County Clinton Middle School
Bedford County Harris Middle School
Bedford County South Side Elementary
Benton County Big Sandy School
Bledsoe County Cecil B Rigsby Elementary
Blount County Eagleton Middle School
Blount County Heritage Middle School
Bradley County Taylor Elementary School
Cannon County West Side Elementary
Huntingdon Special School District Huntingdon Primary
Carter County Hampton High School
Claiborne County Ellen Myers Primary
Clay County Celina K-8
Cocke County Centerview Elementary
Cocke County Cosby Elementary
Cocke County Cosby High School
Cocke County Northwest Elementary
Cocke County Parrottsville Elementary
Manchester Westwood Middle School
Tullahoma Bel Aire Elementary
Tullahoma West Middle School
Davidson County Glencliff High School
Davidson County Haywood Elementary
Davidson County Hull-Jackson Elementary
Davidson County Inglewood Elementary
Davidson County Jones Elementary
Davidson County Knowledge Academy
DeKalb County Northside Elementary
Humboldt City Schools Humboldt Junior/Senior High School
Humboldt City Schools East Elementary School
Trenton Trenton Middle School
Giles County Richland Elementary
Greene County Mosheim Elementary
Greeneville C Hal Henard Elementary
Hamblen County Meadowview Middle School
Hamilton County Brown Middle School
Hamilton County Ooltewah Middle School
Hardin County Parris South Elementary
Hawkins County Church Hill Intermediate School
Hawkins County Hawkins Elementary
Hawkins County Rogersville Middle School
Henry County Henry Elementary
Hickman County Centerville Intermediate School
Houston County Erin Elementary
Houston County Houston Co Middle School
Jackson County Jackson County Middle School
Jefferson County Jefferson Middle School
Knox County Belle Morris Elementary
Knox County Cedar Bluff Elementary
Knox County Cedar Bluff Middle School
Knox County Chilhowee Intermediate
Knox County A L Lotts Elementary
Knox County Inskip Elementary
Knox County Karns Elementary
Knox County Norwood Elementary
Knox County West Haven Elementary
Knox County Emerald Academy
Lawrence County E O Coffman Middle School
Lewis County Lewis Co High School
Fayetteville Fayetteville High School
Madison County Jackson Central-Merry Early College High
Marion County Monteagle Elementary
Marion County South Pittsburg Elementary
Marion County Whitwell Middle School
Marshall County Lewisburg Middle School
Maury County Highland Park Elementary
Maury County Mt. Pleasant Middle Visual Perform. Arts
Maury County Spring Hill Middle School
Montgomery County Pisgah Elementary
Morgan County Petros Joyner Elementary
Obion County Ridgemont Elementary
Union City Union City Elementary School
Perry County Linden Elementary
Perry County Linden Middle School
Pickett County Pickett County Elementary
Putnam County Jere Whitson Elementary
Putnam County Avery Trace Middle School
Roane County Harriman Middle School
Rutherford County Blackman High School
Rutherford County Whitworth-Buchanan Middle School
Rutherford County Riverdale High School
Rutherford County Smyrna High School
Sequatchie County Sequatchie Co Middle School
Sequatchie County Griffith Elementary
Sevier County Northview Intermediate School
Sevier County Pigeon Forge Primary
Sevier County Sevierville Middle School
Shelby County Highland Oaks Middle
Shelby County Chimneyrock Elementary School
Shelby County William Herbert Brewster Elementary School
Shelby County Egypt Elementary
Shelby County Gardenview Elementary
Shelby County Hickory Ridge Middle
Shelby County Oakhaven Elementary
Shelby County Shady Grove Elementary
Shelby County Treadwell Elementary
Shelby County Whitehaven Elementary
Shelby County Winridge Elementary
Shelby County Southern Avenue Charter School Of Academic Excellence Creat
Sullivan County Colonial Heights Middle
Kingsport Ross N. Robinson Middle School
Union County Maynardville Elementary
Union County Paulette Elementary School
Warren County Dibrell Elementary
Warren County Bobby Ray Memorial
Washington County South Central Elementary
Franklin SSD Freedom Middle School
Wilson County Watertown Middle School
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Annie Fu, Chalkbeat

Federal law also requires Tennessee to use test data to identify schools needing additional support to improve the performance of similar student groups based on federal criteria. The following 18 schools from 12 districts met criteria to leave that list.

Schools Exiting the Additional Targeted Support and Improvement List
District School
Bledsoe County Bledsoe County Middle School
Coffee County Coffee County Middle School
Davidson County John Overton High
Davidson County Margaret Allen Middle
Davidson County Knowledge Academies High School
Davidson County RePublic High School
Hancock County Hancock County Elementary
Hickman County East Hickman Middle School
McMinn County Niota Elementary
Madison County North Parkway Middle School
Montgomery County Kenwood Middle
Robertson County Springfield High School
Shelby County Craigmont High
Shelby County Kingsbury High
Shelby County Overton High
Shelby County Snowden Elementary/Middle
Sumner County Joe Shafer Middle School
Unicoi County Unicoi Co Middle School
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Annie Fu, Chalkbeat

The department is scheduled to publish test results online for all Tennessee schools on the state report card by late September.

Chalkbeat data journalist Annie Fu contributed to this report.

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