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Here’s what charter school advisers want to see change in Memphis

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway asks the State Board to reject the Shelby County board's decision to close three Memphis charter schools in May 2016.

The national charter group that Shelby County Schools is considering hiring already has evaluated the district on its charter sector management — and the results paint a picture of a district with deficient oversight.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers presented its findings to Tennessee’s largest district, home to about half of the state’s charter schools, in February. But the report — which praises the district’s efforts so far while also calling for significant changes — was not made publicly accessible.

Now, the Shelby County Schools board is set to vote Tuesday on a $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation to implement some of the group’s recommendations, which center on building systems to reward and replicate schools that boost students’ test scores. (Hyde also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Here are five things NACSA concluded that Shelby County Schools isn’t doing well enough when it comes to charter schools.

Decisions about which schools should open don’t weigh academics enough.

Reviewing the last three years of new charter applications, NACSA found that district evaluators’ “evidence to substantiate ratings are sparse.” Evaluators focused more on whether the operators’ plans complied with state law than on whether they were likely to lead to high-performing schools. The critique is especially relevant given the latest round of charter appeals to the state, where the two national networks denied by the school board defended their academic record in Memphis.

Policies to guide charter school decision-making are inconsistent or nonexistent.

When it comes to existing charters wanting to expand, the state and Shelby County Schools do not have criteria on what makes a charter operator ready to add more schools. When problems arise in charter performance, the district’s policies are not clear whether the district or the charter operator should form a plan to correct them. And the district does not systematically track grievances, making it hard to use them consistently in deciding how to handle schools that are struggling. NACSA wants the district to develop all of these policies, which charter authorizers with strong records typically have.

There’s especially not enough academic oversight of charters.

Beyond state test scores, “the district has not established specific standards for performance,” the report said. Inconsistent standards have led to confusion among charter operators, coming to a head this spring when three charter schools challenged the district’s decision to revoke their right to operate. The district said the schools’ performance did not merit continued operation, but the charter operators argued that they had not agreed to any particular performance goals. NACSA wants Shelby County to prioritize following through on plans to create a “school performance framework” that lays out these expectations going forward.

The district treats all charter schools alike, regardless of how well they’re doing.

NACSA reports that charter operators under Shelby County Schools say they’re being given the autonomy that the charter movement promises is essential for better schools. But while it’s ideal to leave high-performing schools alone, other schools might need a tighter leash, the report says. The group calls for “a system of differentiated oversight that supports the district in implementing a more robust system of accountability without unduly constraining the autonomy of schools that are meeting and exceeding expectations.” Such a system could cause tensions within the charter sector and between schools and the district office.

The district’s charter schools office could be more effective.

NACSA praises the district office for what it does with its small staff — which it notes is “lean for a portfolio of its size.” But it also concludes that by taking an “all hands on deck” approach, the team experiences “a missed opportunity to strategically allocate resources to allow for deeper planning and a higher level of execution that can come with greater specialization.” By figuring out what each team member is responsible for, the report says, all of the work can be done better. The report also concludes that board members could help with charter school decision making, if only they got reliable information with enough time to consider it. That hasn’t happened, board members routinely complain, and the report seems to bear out their concerns.

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: