Turnaround work

Latest iZone expansion will leave few Memphis priority schools to improve on their own

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

When the Tennessee Department of Education issued its list of lowest-performing schools in 2012, Memphis was a glaring hotspot, the home of 69 “priority” schools scoring in the state’s bottom 5 percent, paving the way for intervention at multiple levels.

This year, all but 15 of those schools have either been shuttered or are under the oversight of intense turnaround initiatives implemented by Shelby County Schools or the state’s Achievement School District (ASD).

And next school year, that number will dwindle to eight following decisions this month on more interventions.

Shelby County Schools announced Wednesday that its Innovation Zone will absorb three additional high schools — Douglass, Mitchell and Westwood — bringing to 21 the number of priority schools that will be part of the local iZone in 2016-17.

“The current academic status of these schools illustrates the fact that we have not been effective enough in supporting students,” said Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in a statement. “We have a responsibility to do things differently in order to improve achievement at a more aggressive pace.”

Historically, all three high schools have struggled academically. While their state achievement test scores were on the rise last year, most students failed their end-of-course exams for 2014-15. They also scored four or more points below the state’s ACT average of 19 — and six points or more below a score of 21, which is considered college-ready.

The latest priority schools being taken over by the ASD also have had chronic challenges. Last week, the state-run district announced it would add four other Shelby County schools to the 27 it’s already overseeing in Memphis.

“To ensure that these students and schools are getting what they need, it couldn’t be a solo act by the ASD, it couldn’t be a solo act by the iZone. This is what we’re working on together,” said incoming ASD superintendent Malika Anderson.

The ASD has been the primary driver of massive turnaround work in Memphis, either through schools under its own oversight or through the takeover process that has cost Shelby County Schools enrollment and funding and prodded the local district to more aggressive action.

But while ASD officials often paint a picture of cooperation and collaboration, local district leaders have been more vocal in venting their frustration with each ASD takeover. Last week, their concerns were validated independently when researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College released a report calling the state-run district’s academic impacts marginal thus far and suggesting that priority schools in Memphis would be better off in the iZone.

That report prompted Shelby County’s school board to unanimously pass a resolution this week placing a moratorium on the ASD taking over more schools “until they show consistent progress in improving student academic achievement.”

The iZone has been one of Shelby County Schools’ most successful initiatives since being launched in 2012 under a new state law giving flexibilities and federal money to traditional public school districts to improve chronically underperforming schools. In four years, 11 of its schools have boasted double-digit test score gains, and seven have moved off the state’s priority list. Additionally, the program and its leader, Sharon Griffin, have garnered numerous accolades, including praise from U.S. education chief Arne Duncan during a visit to Memphis in October.

Unlike with the ASD model, which depends primarily on nonprofit charter networks to manage schools, iZone schools remain in the local district. However, like charters, its leaders are given flexibility to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day, among other things.

The iZone model is expensive to operate, mainly because of costs related to adding an hour onto every school day — the equivalent of 23 more school days in a year.

In September, the district received a three-year, $10 million philanthropic grant for the iZone from Teacher Town Memphis, a coalition of national and local funders who wish to remain anonymous. School leaders said that the grant would ensure the iZone’s expansion next year.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”