Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman admits that when he tours an elementary school he is usually drawn to the first- and second-grade classrooms.
Those were the grades he used to teach “a long time ago.”
In Memphis Wednesday, Sept. 4, to tour three schools in the state-run Achievement School District, Huffman’s first stop was the “lower academy” at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Frayser. It is the half of the school devoted to children in kindergarten through second grade.
He saw students standing and acting out action verbs, other students sitting in a circle while pondering a fourth-grade math problem and second-graders writing on Post-it notes as part of a writing exercise built around a debate about who is better – boys or girls.
“It’s pretty fast-paced,” Huffman said after stops in four classrooms. “It’s pretty clear that it’s not games. It’s instruction, and I think that’s one of the things you notice as well.”
This is Whitney’s first year in the two-year-old Achievement School District, where being in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools in terms of student achievement is the criteria for state intervention.
Principal Debra Broughton expected an enrollment of 370 and got 413, including 30 children who had been attending optional schools last school year.
The Achievement School District began its first year with a focus on Frayser schools, with Corning and Frayser Elementary and Westside Middle School in the district. Like those schools, Whitney is part of a feeder pattern at which Frayser High School is the last stop.
The campus that includes Frayser Elementary and High schools is less than a mile away from Whitney.
Parents of children zoned to Whitney Elementary saw the teachers and staff at the new Frayser Achievement Schools canvassing the neighborhood a year ago in the summer heat.
That included district superintendent Chris Barbic.
“This feels much smoother. There’s a calm confidence that I don’t think we had last year at this time. It was pretty frenetic that first month,” Barbic said. “We’re not going into a new place necessarily where it’s a whole new set of relationships and a whole new set of introductions. … That was why we wanted to do it this way. Over time we would be able to build on those relationships and really keep our focus on what’s happening inside the school. Last year we were doing everything all at once.”
The Memphis mix of the Achievement School District, conventional schools, charter schools and the countywide school system’s Innovation Zone Schools is something Huffman does not see in other parts of the state, despite the education reforms and changes at the state level.
“It is definitely unique for the state,” said Huffman. “I think it’s a reflection of the fact that most of the priority schools were here in Memphis. I think it’s going to be very exciting to see all of the different kinds of schools and to see what that leads to in terms of opportunities for kids. The Innovation Zone schools the district is running had a really good start.”
Huffman has been point man in Nashville in particular, where there has been vocal opposition to new state rules permitting more charter schools and to the state’s proposed change to new teacher certification standards that would de-emphasize seniority and advanced degrees and eliminate pay steps.
Huffman had a private meeting with Achievement School District teachers during his time in Memphis.
“Understanding what they perceive the differences to be working in the ASD schools they are in compared to where they were before,” he said. “What drew them to become a teacher? Why did they choose to come into an ASD school?”
For the teachers at Whitney, Huffman said the challenges include more than students not proficient at grade level. He saw children coming from different schools and different educational experiences.
“Teachers are trying to grapple with kids whose skill levels are pretty different,” he said. “That’s a big challenge for teachers.”
But he also saw higher expectations for those students who, wherever they come from, are new to the school experience in general.
“They’ve got more of a college focus than you see in most elementary schools,” Huffman observed. “Everything is clearly geared at an early age around this expectation of college.”