The Achievement School District Thursday selected two Nashville middle schools for possible intervention next year, and will decide Dec. 12 which of them to take over.
Neely’s Bend Middle Prep and Madison Middle Prep are located less than four miles apart in the section of the northeastern part of the city called Madison, a community once home to country music stars like Patsy Cline and Earl Scruggs, and now populated largely by  Nashville’s growing working and middle class.
Both middle schools are new to the “priority list,” which includes the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools according to test scores. The Achievement School District is meant to raise the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s schools to the top 20.
Teachers at the schools learned earlier this week that either Neely’s Bend or Madison will be operated by LEAD Public Schools, a local charter management organization, next school year. Which school the ASD will choose to hand over to LEAD depends on input from community meetings at each school on Dec. 4.  ASD officials will announce their decision a week later, on Dec. 12.
The ASD already has one Nashville school under its control. It partnered with LEAD to turnaround Brick Church Middle School in 2012. That time, the decision was made without public meetings between charter officials, parents and teachers, which ASD officials call part of the “matching process.”
The matching process for potential ASD schools in Memphis began more than a month ago, where district officials intended to expand by 12 schools in the 2015-16 school year. Unlike in years past, they have been met with organized opposition from teachers and parents who say that the  “matching” process is confusing, and disruptive. Vocal critics at the community meetings have pointed to the ASD’s  mixed track record with the first two waves of schools it took over in Memphis.  Last month officials announced a list of 12 schools it was considering turning around in Memphis.
A week after the names of the schools were released, two charter organizations, Freedom Prep and KIPP, withdrew from the process. On Wednesday, the California-based charter organization Green Dot followed suit, citing lack of community support.
Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, said that the matching process in Nashville is shorter than the one in Memphis because the ASD is dealing with fewer schools and operators. He said a week allowed “ample opportunity” for district officials to make up their minds.
Because of the limited number of organizations authorized by the ASD to open schools in Nashville, the district’s expansion in the city has been less dramatic than in Memphis. Currently, the ASD has one other school in the capital, which is also operated by LEAD Public Schools.
As of now, LEAD Public Schools is one of only three charter groups that the ASD has authorized to take over or open schools in Nashville. The other two operators, KIPP and Rocketship, are not focusing on opening more schools with the ASD at this time, Smalley said.LEAD currently operates four schools in Nashville: LEAD Academy, Brick Church, Cameron College Prep Academy, and LEAD Prep Southeast.“It’s just a question of putting quality over scale and working with that charter operator and making sure they’re growing at the right pace, the pace that’s right for them,” Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief operating officer, told Chalkbeat in September.

Smalley said that Nashville might see  more charter operators partnering  with the ASD in coming years. The ASD will approve new operators in June.

Although the ASD has a mixed record in Memphis,  its Nashville school has done well. Brick Church College Prep saw the largest test score gains in the ASD this year, with the passing rates at the school increasing by about 20 percentage points in reading and math. About 30 percent of Brick Church’s students are classified as special education students, almost three times the state average.

When LEAD was matched with Brick Church two years ago there was no public input process, and the timeline was shorter. LEAD learned it was taking over Brick Church in March, and began with their first group of fifth graders in August — a span of just four months.
LEAD phases into schools, meaning it takes over only one grade level at a time, and shares a building with the school it is meant to replace . Chris Reynolds, LEAD’s CEO,  said co-location, as the practice is called, is a benefit for both the new charter grades and the school being phased out. In both schools the charter organization has gone into, the test scores of students in the grades still operated by the traditional school have seen a boost. Both Cameron College Prep, LEAD’s school, and Cameron Middle School, the traditional public school being phased out, were among the fastest improving in the state.

Reynolds said that he hoped the months between now and the beginning of school in August would allow for collaboration between teachers at the existing schools and LEAD. Teachers from LEAD’s schools will be visiting Madison Middle Prep today to talk to teachers, said Stephen Henry, the president of the local chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He attended a meeting held by the ASD for faculty at Madison.

Christy King, a sixth grade English teacher at Madison, said that, after attending the meeting, she was frustrated that ASD officials were discounting the gains made last year under a new principal. Madison’s passing rates went up 3.4 percentage points in math and less than one point in English.

“We didn’t grow as much as we should, but we’re moving up,” King said. She also said changes principal Michelle Demps began implementing at Madison last year will have a bigger impact on test scores in the spring.

Demps recruited new teachers to the school, and told some teachers they were not a good fit for Madison — something that principals rarely do, King said. She also has given gave teachers more time for professional development, has facilitated lesson planning in teams to increase collaboration and peer-learning, and has brought in new writing and reading programs.

“We feel like last year was really our first year with a true turnaround middle school principal leading the school,” King said. “She knows her stuff, she knows what’s current, she knows how to lead.”

But Barbic said he hopes Nashville’s matching process will be less teacher-centric, and more parent-centric than Memphis’s.
“I feel like there are times where we didn’t have enough parents in the room in the same way [as teachers],” he said. “That’s something we really want to try to work to improve. While this is disruptive for teachers, and we understand that disruption, at the end of the day, we’re serving families.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Brick Church’s average scores went up more than 20 percent. The percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced increased by more than 20 percent.