Test score trends at the state-run Achievement School District grabbed headlines last week, but even larger gains were logged by several other low-performing Memphis schools in the process of being overhauled.
Most schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a group of 14 schools that also started in the bottom 5 percent statewide, saw their students’ math scores rise since last year. The initiative even had a number of schools buck the statewide trend and raise the proportion of students meeting the state’s standards in reading.
Now, Shelby County leaders are using the scores to renew calls for increased funding for the iZone, which has run down its infusion of federal funds and now is cobbling together scarce dollars. They also are raising questions about why the state is letting its own district take over Shelby County schools when a local improvement strategy appears to be paying off.
“The state should invest wisely, and part of the equation should be what programs are working,” board member Chris Caldwell said last week at a meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education. “Clearly the iZone is.”
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
When federal officials turned up the pressure on states to raise performance at their lowest-scoring schools, Tennessee took a multi-pronged approach. It established the ASD to remove some schools from their districts, either to run on its own or to hand over to nonprofit charter operators. It also allocated a pot of federal funds — School Improvement Grants created through the 2009 stimulus — to districts that agreed to overhaul “persistently low-achieving” schools in specific ways.
To clear the way for districts to qualify for the funds, legislators signed off on allowing districts to free their weakest schools from many mandates while holding on to their students — and the associated state funding.
The funding and flexibility together led to Shelby County’s Innovation Zone. The zone’s 16 schools received autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day — changes that are common in privately run charter schools but rarer in traditional public schools. In exchange, making the right changes would bring a temporary but sorely needed influx of new dollars.
“We’ve got a very, very aggressive but simple formula that our team executes to a tee,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in an interview earlier this month.
Cherokee Elementary School, which has emerged as a sort of trophy for the district, ran with the new autonomy, even though it was one of the only iZone schools not to receive the federal funds. There, 65 percent of students met the state’s standards in math — four times as many students as in 2013, after one year in the district — and twice as many students met the state’s reading standards. That growth came at a time when test scores statewide rose by a much smaller margin, and just 40 percent of students in elementary and middle school across Shelby County met the state’s math standards.
District and school officials attributed the outsized gains to an unrelenting focus on ensuring that students have the skills they need to succeed on the state tests, known collectively as TCAP.
Principal Rodney Rowan personally rewrote the curriculum after studying the state’s tests, an undertaking that Heidi Ramirez, Shelby County’s chief academic officer, said she found impressive.
The school also rallied students around success on the tests and introduced data analysis to teachers’ practice, asking them to scrutinize assignments over the course of the year to determine the skills not yet mastered by students.
Then, “instead of teaching what they already know, I’m able to boost them up,” Rowan said.
Other iZone schools’ test score gains were less dramatic but still far outpaced state and local trends. After a change in leadership, 29 percent of students at Treadwell Elementary School met state literacy standards, up from 18 percent last year. And almost half of the students at Douglass School, which serves students from kindergarten through 8th grade, met science standards, up from just 30 percent the year before.
Not every iZone school saw gains on every test. At Sherwood Middle, for example, science scores dropped from 49 percent to 26 percent.
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. English I scores from 2011-14 were not available for Trezevant High, Melrose High or Hamilton High so they were not included in this chart. The 2013-14 English I scores for Trezvant, Melrose and Hamilton were 23, 33.1 and 26.2 respectively.
Still, the district is so confident in the iZone’s trajectory that it is expanding it by two more schools and 1,400 students this fall, even though money is tight to add new programs and pay staff for additional hours. It also is allocating $7 million of its own scarce funds, partly drawing from the district’s $41 million settlement with the city earlier this year over a funding dispute. In addition, the state is providing almost $5 million to support turnaround efforts at five of the district’s iZone schools.
However, any future expansion is unclear, since the state is spending down its federal funds and the district is strapped for cash. The uncertainty appears poised to exacerbate budget tension between the ASD, which has been successful in attracting philanthropic support from across Tennessee and beyond, and Shelby County Schools, which has ceded enrollment and associated funding to the state-run initiative.
Speaking recently about the ASD, Hopson said he thought it had pushed the district’s leaders to improve their schools more quickly than they might have otherwise. But he also said he thinks the iZone’s approach is more appropriate for Memphis.
“I also think there’s a lot of value in having a lot of homegrown leaders,” Hopson said, alluding to the fact that many of the people hired to run ASD schools had worked elsewhere before coming to Memphis. “It takes charter schools awhile to get adjusted to the culture. Most of our leaders have strong ties here. They’re able to jump in and assess the needs, get buy-in, and get results.”
State education officials touted the state-run ASD’s scores in their press release last week. But Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told reporters that she is “proud of the iZone work that is happening in the state.”
She indicated, though, that the state considers its long-term strategy for improving low-performing schools an open question.
“It’s important that we not only continue to look at the work that they’re doing and how it is impacting results but also to work together in terms of learning, from the state perspective, what the iZone is doing well, what the ASD is doing well, and … other models across the state of turning around priority schools that might not [fall into] either of those two structures,” she said.
A future without additional funding for the iZone won’t be good for the thousands of students who attend low-performing schools in Memphis, Hopson said.
“Because these schools have been underinvested in for such a long time, we owe it to the community to do more,” Hopson said. “When you have something that’s working and working in a meaningful way, we have to continue to fund it.”