Who Is In Charge

How a Memphis lawmaker quietly passed a law that may have kept your school from state takeover

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari sits at ease in principal Monekea Smith’s office at Hamilton High School, down the road from Graceland, across the street from Akbari’s grandmother’s house — and nearly four hours and a world away from the state Capitol, where she spends much of her time.

When Smith speaks with a school colleague on her walkie-talkie and signs off “Love Hamilton,” Akbari instinctively offers up the appropriate response: “Absolutely!”

Only someone familiar with the storied Memphis school and its culture would know that “Love Hamilton, Absolutely!” is Hamilton’s longstanding motto, emblazoned on the school’s walls and often exchanged by alumni.

Akbari has both a deep knowledge of the community she represents and a deep appreciation for policy, enabling her to straddle two worlds and connect them in a way that leads to meaningful change.

“If you cannot identify with people or with a problem, then it’s difficult for you to create policy that can solve it,” Akbari says later, explaining how she’s been able to find impactful legislative solutions to public education challenges in Memphis.

In the last five years, the legislature has passed a slew of laws targeting the state’s lowest performing schools, many of which are in Memphis.

Against that backdrop this spring, Akbari shepherded into law a policy change that ended up protecting 10 struggling-but-improving schools from state intervention. It also brought clarity to the complex and often contentious school turnaround process under the Tennessee Achievement School District.

In so doing, the Memphis Democrat managed to build consensus among lawmakers and state leaders, including founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, in favor of the school turnaround game-changer.

“Her just reaching out initially and having a conversation before it even got to the point of a bill was great,” Barbic said. “That doesn’t always happen.”

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

At age 31, Akbari (her name rhymes with blackberry) is the youngest member of the legislature and also an attorney. She has quickly risen to become one of the legislature’s most effective voices on educational issues — despite rarely raising her voice in House Education meetings or on the House floor.

In addition to holding public office, she works for Akbari Corp., started in 1981 by her Iranian-born father and Memphian mom. Most of Akbari’s mother’s family attended Hamilton. She jokes that someone from her family graduated from the school every year during the 1970s.

Like many of the schools in Akbari’s district, Hamilton is a priority school, meaning it ranks academically among the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. Hamilton also is part of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the local district’s own school turnaround initiative.

During her recent school visit, Akbari and Hamilton’s principal enjoyed an instant rapport based on mutual acquaintances and a fluency in Memphis institutions, especially schools. Because of Akbari’s roots, she understands Memphians’ intense loyalty to neighborhood schools, and why the suggestion of state intervention unleashes feelings of confusion, frustration and even anger.

Akbari herself is a product of Memphis-area schools. She attended Chimney Rock Elementary, Cordova Middle and Cordova High schools before receiving her college degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a law degree from St. Louis University. But she always knew that one day she would return home. In high school, she had participated in the Memphis Challenge program encouraging students with high ACT scores to settle eventually in Memphis to serve their city.

Because of her 12 years in Memphis City and legacy Shelby County Schools, Akbari has a nuanced view of public education.

“I’m a product of the city and county schools, and I know what public schools can do,” she says. “It will be a disservice if we don’t invest in these schools.”

She also knows firsthand the schools’ weaknesses.

“When I got to Wash U, I did not feel as prepared as other students. I had a high ACT score, a high GPA, but other students were a little bit more prepared,” she recalls.

Akbari didn’t expect to become politically involved at such a young age. But the House seat in her district suddenly opened up when longtime Rep. Lois DeBerry died in 2013. Then 29, Akbari claimed 89 percent of the vote to defeat an independent candidate. She successfully retained the seat the following year in a regular election.

During her campaigns, the state’s new Achievement School District was a top concern among constituents worried about the state encroaching on neighborhood schools, even those that are chronically underperforming. Because the ASD had not been in existence during her school years, Akbari had to do her homework.

One of the schools in her district, Alcy Elementary, was being considered for ASD charter conversion because of low performance, or to be closed by Shelby County Schools because of declining enrollment. However, when Akbari visited Alcy and talked with the principal, she saw a school that was improving — and test scores bore that out.

“If a school is on the priority list, but they’re making changes, it’s not worth it to take them through the stress of turnaround,” she said. “That’s not a good use of  the ASD’s resources.”

Akbari drafted a bill that would let a school try its own turnaround, rather than being taken over by the statewide district, if the school received top-level TVAAS value-added growth scores of 4 or 5, replaced the principal, or was designated a community school that offers non-academic services such as physical and mental health services.

School motto "Love Hamilton Absolutely!" adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
School motto “Love Hamilton Absolutely!” adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.

Armed with feedback from her Memphis constituents and Shelby County school board members, she workshopped the bill with Barbic and the Tennessee Department of Education. She knew if they gave the nod, she’d get other lawmakers’ support.

“If I don’t get something people are willing to support, then I’m going to be failing at the starting line,” she said. “I could file something to prove a point or raise awareness, but it’s not going to be able to pass.”

The bill eventually was streamlined to include the TVAAS provision. And, of the 22 bills filed in 2015 aimed at changing ASD operations, it was the only one to pass. In fact, it cleared both chambers unanimously.

The seemingly innocuous bill has had a surprisingly tangible impact in the state’s two largest cities. Because of the new law, when the ASD unveiled its newest targets this fall for takeover and conversion, seven schools in Memphis and three in Nashville were no longer eligible and instead were given time to improve on their own.

“It is tremendous,” said Shante Avant, a Shelby County Schools board member of the new law, which she said gives local educators and students a sense of empowerment. “It means to them that they have come together as a community and made things happen.”

Barbic said the law has helped state turnaround efforts, too — by making the criteria for state intervention clearer. That, in turn, has made the ASD more transparent.

“Before, we could explain all we wanted and I think [the criteria for turnaround] was objective, but folks felt it lacked transparency,” he said. “Now, it’s clear. It’s black and white.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: