ASD overhaul

Here’s how Tennessee’s downsized turnaround district will look — and what charter leaders are saying about it

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) introduced Malika Anderson as the new superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District in late 2015. McQueen announced Anderson's departure from the job on Wednesday.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says Tennessee’s turnaround district can do better, more efficient work under a lean structure that encourages more teamwork among its charter and direct-run schools.

That means providing mostly the same services with half as many positions as the Achievement School District tightens its belt for the long haul.

Effective July 1, only Superintendent Malika Anderson will retain her job while the state consolidates the offices of the ASD and its Achievement Schools in Memphis. Fifty-nine positions will be impacted, and current employees are being invited to reapply for 30 jobs under the new structure unveiled last week.

The new hierarchy represents the most dramatic round of cuts since the ASD began taking over chronically low-performing schools in 2012. The cuts continue a shrinkage that began last year when the State Department of Education started absorbing some ASD operational positions after an audit revealed incidents of financial mismanagement.

The change comes as the department seeks financial stability for its most rigorous school improvement tool.

The Achievement School District was created and developed with federal Race to the Top money but has been relying on philanthropic funding since the award ran out in 2015.  

McQueen doesn’t want essential academic work dependent upon the whim of grant cycles. By streamlining the ASD’s structure, she said, the district will save $3 million annually and become solvent for the future.

“To be set up well from a financial perspective to do this work in a dynamic environment is absolutely the right work for us to do now as we go forward, even more aggressively around school improvement,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Four chiefs will report to Anderson under a structure that in some ways looks more like a traditional school district.

For the first time, the ASD will have a chief academic officer, a key position for most school systems. That person will oversee principals at each of the five schools that make up Achievement Schools, an ASD-run network in the Frayser community of Memphis. The job also will entail oversight of six academic specialists, who will work primarily with Achievement Schools, but also look for opportunities to share practices across the district’s 26 charter schools.

“This chief academic officer will be looking at what we learn across the (district) and how we can learn as a network and continue to grow,” McQueen said.

The other three lieutenants will include an executive director of external affairs, who will be charged with community relations; an executive director of operations, who will work closely with the State Department of Education on matters around accounting and human resources; and a chief performance officer, who will evaluate the district’s schools and recruit charter operators interested in turnaround work.

McQueen called the chief performance officer’s role “critical” to the process of recruiting and authorizing high-quality charter networks — and then monitoring their work.

The hierarchy is simplified somewhat from 2015 before founding Superintendent Chris Barbic left — and after the Achievement Schools had broken off to create its own central office.  

At the time, ASD leaders expected to become financially sustainable under a new $200-per-pupil fee charged to its charter operators. However, those fees have generated less revenue than projected due to declining enrollment at some of its charter schools.

Beginning this July, the ASD is changing its fee structure so that charter operators pay 2.5 percent of the state funding they receive for their students.

Charter operators reached by Chalkbeat said they don’t expect the leaner structure to significantly impact their work.

“It just didn’t send shockwaves through our office,” said Jocquell Rodgers, spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee. “I just don’t see where the cuts … will affect us negatively other than the higher fee.”

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Next school year, the ASD will oversee 26 charter schools and five direct-run schools.

Bob Nardo, who heads Libertas School of Memphis, said the job cuts are not a reflection of the ASD’s performance, but rather the need to regroup based on enrollment and funding.

“It’s important to keep in mind what the ASD is going through right now is essentially what Shelby County Schools has gone through in recent years,” he said. “They need just enough to do their core task, which is hold us accountable to be thoughtful and strategic to transform priority schools, and I think they have enough to do that.”

Bobby White, CEO of Frayser Community Schools, said charter operators are more self-sufficient than when they joined the ASD’s portfolio of schools.

“Now that we have three, four years under our belt, I’m confident that we’ll be able to handle those supports…,” White said.

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

NEXT LEADER

Here are the four candidates to be the next superintendent of the Achievement School District

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Four candidates are in the running to become the next leader of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district, including one who is based in Memphis.

The state Department of Education released to Chalkbeat on Wednesday the list of candidates to lead the Achievement School District. Three candidates are from outside of the state, and all four are men with experience in charters, turnaround work, or state departments of education.

One of these candidates would take the helm following the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012 with the goal to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations. Anderson was hand-picked by Chris Barbic, the district’s founding superintendent, following his departure in 2015.

The new superintendent would oversee 30 schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it started under Barbic.

Now the district is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

Here are the candidates, and what we know about their education backgrounds so far:

Keith Sanders, former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. Sanders currently runs a consulting group bearing his name in Memphis.

Sanders led turnaround efforts for Delaware’s state department from 2012-2014. He helped to run the state’s Partnership Zone, which launched in 2011 as an effort to boost Delaware’s lowest-performing schools. (Tennessee is embarking on its own Partnership Zone in Hamilton County.)

Sanders was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before co-founding the Miller-Mccoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education.

Barley is currently leading the Nevada Achievement School District, which was modeled in part after Tennessee’s turnaround district. He was previously the vice president for StudentsFirst (now named 50CAN), a political lobbying organization formed in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former school chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. His career in education started with Teach For America as a fourth-grade teacher in San Jose, California.

Stephen Osborn, chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Osborn has worked with the Rhode Island department since 2014 and currently oversees the department’s charter school authorization and school improvement efforts. Osborn spearheaded the creation of the Rhode Island Advanced Coursework Network, a course choice platform. He was previously an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Miller has overseen charter school expansion and operations at the Florida department since 2008. He also now oversees tax-credit scholarships for low-income students, scholarship programs for students with disabilities, education savings accounts, and private schools. He was previously with the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council and was the executive director of Hope Center Charter School in Jensen Beach, Florida, which focused on children with autism.

The four candidates were identified over the last three months through the help of a search firm, K-12 Search Group.

The candidates have already interviewed with “key members of the ASD, charter, and funding community in Memphis,” said Sara Gast, a state spokeswoman. That group will provide feedback to Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will then narrow the list to two final candidates, Gast said. The last phase of the process will include public meet-and-greet opportunities before McQueen names the next superintendent.

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. ASD officials will host a meeting at the school Tuesday evening to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that a Nov. 18 parents meeting has been rescheduled to next week due to wintry weather.