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VOL. 131 | NO. 249 | Thursday, December 15, 2016

New State Education Plan Limits ASD Ability to Take Over Failing Schools

By Bill Dries

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The state of Tennessee is about to change the rules for how the Achievement School District takes over a failing school.

Schools that are in the bottom five percent of schools statewide in terms of student achievement and growth would no longer automatically be eligible for takeover by the state-run school district that began in the 2012-2013 school year.

The local school district could be given the first option to intervene aggressively over a four-year period to turn the school’s performance around, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told a group Wednesday, Dec. 14, at Douglass High School.

The town hall meeting there was one in a series this week statewide in advance of the release of a larger tentative plan later this month. The plan, which includes but is not limited to elements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, would become final in the spring of 2017.

The “Tennessee Succeeds” accountability plan would take effect in the 2017-2018 school year with letter grades awarded to schools and accountability standards in place in the fall of 2018 before the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

The list of failing schools, at least for now, is still identified by the state as “Priority Schools.”

“If you are newly identified on the Priority School list in 2017, meaning you have not been on it in the two runs we’ve had before, you would be on one track that has a very district-led partnership with the state,” McQueen said. “It’s a district plan that the state will partner with (a school district) on. You have a short period of time for improvements. But you would not be immediately eligible for the Achievement School District.”

That’s a change from the ASD’s authority since its inception in 2012 to remove any failing school in the bottom 5 percent from the school system it is currently part of and make it part of the ASD, which is an independent school system with its own superintendent.

The Achievement School District has 33 schools – 17 elementary, 10 middle, 4 high and 2 alternative schools. All but two Nashville middle schools are in Memphis.

Districts the schools are taken from have no right of refusal in the matter. But ASD officials and Shelby County Schools leaders have tried to work together on the selection process. They have agreed in many cases but have also had some notable disagreements.

The ASD took-over Raleigh Egypt Middle School in the current school year and SCS leaders took the unprecedented step of expanding nearby Raleigh Egypt High School to include the same middle school grades in what amounts to a competition between the two systems for the same students.

The ASD had considered taking over Raleigh Egypt High School earlier, but backed off after SCS leaders argued that changes the school system had made at the high school should have more time to work.

The new ESSA federal education regulations require that school districts be given the first chance to intervene and turnaround a failing school. – “the first chance to create a plan for improvement and it can’t be more than four years,” McQueen said. “You can’t give the district more than four years to make the change.”

The SCS turn-around model, Innovation Zone schools, also for the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, get more state funding like the ASD for a longer school day and teacher assistants for rapid intervention with students who fall behind as well as a new principal and a faculty that includes new teachers recruited for the turnaround.

McQueen said the changes in the ASD with an emphasis on more intervention by the school district before the ASD becomes involved would include some amount of federal ESSA funding that comes through the state.

And she added, the state would have some flexibility with a goal of providing some funding to every school in the bottom 5 percent.

“Our current intent and what we have in our plan is that every school identified on the priority school list – every school would get some funding,” she said. “That means that that funding has to be used for whatever plan you come up with for whatever track you are on. Our intent is that every school – not just some, which is what has happened in the past -- would get some amount of funding through our title money if you are identified as a priority school.”

McQueen had talked earlier this year of the ASD working more on its relationship with communities around schools that the state takes over as she also announced the ASD would not add any new schools in the 2017-2018 school year. That was because of problems with online achievement tests the state moved to this year. Those test results are integral to how the state determines which schools are in the bottom 5 percent.

Starting in the 2018-2019 school year, the state will give each school a letter grade based not only on those results but growth students have achieved. There is no cap on how many schools can get an “A” grade but only 5 percent can get an “F.’

The letter grades tentative weighted balance at this point counts the performance and growth of all students as 60 percent of the total grade and the performance and growth of the subgroup of under-served students as 40 percent.

Word of the changes for the ASD come the same week that it fared poorly in results from the state’s end of course exams for high school students in the 2015-2016 school year.

In six of the 12 subjects tested, no ASD students were considered to have “mastered” the subjects -- the highest category of achievement. The highest percentage of mastery among the ASD students was 1.1 percent in English 3.

In Algebra I, 94.7 percent of the ASD students were “below” expectations, the lowest category -- 90.2 percent in Geometry and 89.9 percent in Algebra 2. That compares to statewide achievement numbers on the TNReady tests of 54.2 percent below expectations in Algebra I, 52 percent in Geometry and 45.5 percent in Algebra 2.

State Representative Antonio Parkinson of Memphis, a vocal critic of the ASD, was among those at Douglass High Wednesday for McQueen’s presentation.

He described himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the new provisions.

“Of course the devil’s in the details,” Parkinson added. “Overall, the fact that the Department of Education has shown some flexibility and the willingness to listen and make some adjustments – I’m cool with that.”

But Parkinson said the ASD should be held accountable for current results in which it’s been outperformed by the SCS I-Zone schools.

“I saw that the ASD was still here. I didn’t hear anything in regards to accountability regarding the ASD,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything in regards to what happens if a school continues to marinate in the ASD. … That’s what I want to hear.”

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