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:

school closures

What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

PHOTO: Katie Kull/Chalkbeat
After Vance Middle School closed, math scores of students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School went up, while reading scores went down. (Pictured here in 2016)

Student reading test scores from three closed schools in Memphis generally improved in their new school, but math scores decreased, according to a 2017 Shelby County Schools report Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson requested the study in 2016 as the district’s model for closing schools evolved to include combining students from several buildings and assigning them to one new school, but the report was never presented publicly.

The report concluded that “overall, transferring students from underperforming to more stable schools seems to improve outcomes for transferred students, and in some cases, students attending the schools accepting them.” It went on to say that “we recommend continued, concentrated academic support for students transferring from failing schools.”

Shelby County Schools leaders have framed school closures in Memphis as painful but necessary as the district seeks to free up money to support a majority of students who come from poor families. But more often than not, students were assigned to go to schools that had similar or worse test scores than the school they were leaving.


From the archives: Here are Memphis schools closed since 2012


Hopson said the lesson from those school closures was that a new model was needed.

“You get so much backlash and it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building,” Hopson said recently. “So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money. But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.”

That model worked for Westhaven Elementary, which has boosted test scores faster than most schools in Tennessee both years it has been open. The school combined Westhaven, Fairley, and Raineshaven elementary schools, which were among the lowest performing in the state, into one new building.

Hopson’s massive facilities plan presented last month would replicate that model in 10 more neighborhoods in what he says will prevent the mixed results seen with other school closures.


Related: The inside peek at how Westhaven Elementary became the new model for school closures


The study doesn’t include all 17 schools that have closed during Hopson’s tenure. The state canceled testing in 2016 for students in third through eighth grades, making tracking their performance over time more difficult, Hopson said. The report examined student test scores from Graves Elementary and Vance Middle, which closed in 2014, and Northside High, which closed in 2016.

Little research focuses on the effects of school closures on student achievement. However, a 2009 report suggests that Chicago students benefited when they transferred to significantly higher-performing schools. In New York City, a 2015 study found that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked schools actually benefited students forced to enroll elsewhere.

Here’s how students performed at each of the schools in the Memphis study:

Graves Elementary School

About 70 Graves Elementary students, or 35 percent, enrolled at Ford Road Elementary, the school the district assigned for them after closure. Most of the other Graves students enrolled at other schools within the district.

Reading and math scores on Tennessee’s TNReady test rose for the Graves students at Ford Road, which already had additional district resources as part of the Innovation Zone, created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest performing schools.

While reading scores for the rest of Ford Road Elementary rose about four percentage points during that year, math scores dipped at the same rate, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Northside High School

About 80 students from Northside High School, or 43 percent, enrolled at Manassas High, as outlined in the district’s plan for re-assigning students.

Of those former Northside High students, the percent of students on grade level increased by about 5 percentage points, but algebra test scores remained flat. Other students at Manassas High saw a small increase in reading scores, but algebra proficiency dropped from 4 percent to 0 percent, according to the district’s analysis.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

Vance Middle School

Vance Middle School students who transferred to B.T. Washington High School after their school closed in 2014 saw their math scores go up and reading scores go down.

There were no middle school students to compare them to at B.T. Washington because Vance students were the first middle school class at the downtown school.

Source: Shelby County Schools<br />Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

You can read Shelby County Schools’ full report below.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.