ASD Pivot

Tennessee’s turnaround district is reaching the end of an era

A teacher instructs students at Aspire Coleman Elementary School on May 12 as Gov. Bill Haslam and other officials visit the Memphis charter school operated under Tennessee's Achievement School District.

For five years, the Achievement School District has been the Tennessee Department of Education’s primary vehicle of school turnaround.

But that’s changing, bringing a dramatic era in Tennessee school reform to an end.

The state-run district hatched in the Race to the Top era when Tennessee won a $500 million pot of federal funds in 2010 by promising in part to improve its most struggling schools. To fulfill that promise, officials developed the Achievement School District, which takes over schools with the worst test scores and assigns them to new managers, usually charter operators, with the goal of vaulting them to the top within five years. By last fall, the district’s portfolio had swelled to 33 schools, mostly in Memphis.

But the model has achieved mixed results at best, while angering local stakeholders with each school takeover. Now, in the year that ASD founders set as a benchmark, a series of changes have whittled away the district’s influence.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says the state will no longer default to the Achievement School District when considering how to help Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

“We’re in a dynamic environment. We’re learning about what works,” she said.

A new federal education law offered an opportunity to revamp school improvement strategies under McQueen, who became commissioner about three years after the ASD took control of its first schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

Tennessee’s pivot comes as other states acknowledge the limits of state-run turnaround districts. Michigan and Louisiana both began dissolving similar districts this year, even as Nevada and North Carolina have moved to create new ones.

“The fact that they seem to be rolling back (the ASD) in Tennessee, I think is a good sign. Hopefully these states will turn to strategies that are research-based, that actually improves what goes on in classrooms,” said Leigh Dingerson, an education consultant who has researched the model for the Southern Education Foundation and Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Tennessee’s new strategy doesn’t completely throw out the ASD. McQueen emphasizes that the district will remain the state’s most rigorous intervention. But with a long list of other schools in need of transformation, Tennessee will lean on more local district-led turnaround initiatives. A prime example is Shelby County Schools’ celebrated Innovation Zone in Memphis, which gives schools more autonomy over aspects like school day length and hiring, without converting them to charter schools.

Gov. Haslam says he’s committed to the ASD, even as the state downsizes its office

Tennessee also wants to launch a “partnership zone” model, in which a team of state and local district leaders will work together to oversee a cluster of five or more priority schools. That tool is being explored for five Chattanooga schools beginning in 2018.

McQueen says the state also won’t shy away from closing schools that are eligible for ASD takeover, but serve too few students. Enrollment has been a big challenge in Memphis, where the state-run district closed two of its charter schools last month after two operators determined that they didn’t have enough students to provide the necessary supports.

Malika Anderson became the ASD’s second superintendent in January 2016. (Photo by

“We have to think not only about what’s appropriate academically, but also do you have the financial ability for that particular plan to be successful based on enrollment or the potential for declining enrollment?” McQueen said. “Those are very particular characteristics we’ll have to think about as we discuss interventions.”

McQueen views all the changes as complementing the ASD’s work, not stymying it. “It gives us more opportunity for intervention in more ways that fits the needs of the schools and of the district,” she said.

The move to spread funding and resources across different turnaround techniques makes sense, says Ashley Jochim, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“It becomes very difficult to put all of your eggs in the turnaround district basket,” said Jochim, who has looked at state turnaround initiatives across the nation. “The reality is there are too many schools that need help for that option.”


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.