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VOL. 132 | NO. 188 | Thursday, September 21, 2017


Sam Stockard

Are Achievement Schools a Problem or the Solution?

By Sam Stockard

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Forgiveness or farewell: What should be the fate of the Achievement School District?

Among Memphis legislators, it just depends.

State Rep. Mark White calls the task to pull Shelby County’s poorest performing schools out of the state’s bottom 5 percent a “heavy lift.”

In the wake of Malika Anderson’s resignation as ASD director after a year and a half, White continues to support the state-run district, saying it remains “necessary” because he doesn’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” school. He agrees Shelby County still has challenges, and the ASD is designed to offer alternatives to the status quo.

“So, moving forward, we just have to keep searching for answers,” says White, a Memphis Republican.

The problem is plain to see, he adds, but finding solutions is a little tougher.

While Germantown High School recently produced the highest ACT scores in the state, it’s largely made up of homes where the families are intact and students go to school ready to learn.

“ASD is dealing with just the opposite,” White points out. “So, it’s always going to be a challenge.”

White gives the district a pass, more or less, on missteps and bad publicity.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson takes the opposing view.

With Anderson set to leave Sept. 30, Parkinson says it’s time to consider ending “the failed experiment” of ASD, especially with programs such as the Memphis-based Innovation Zone schools showing more substantial results with greater local control.

“It’s better for the children, better for the teachers and better for the communities,” the Memphis Democrat says.

Parkinson, who sparred with school choice and charter school supporters in his last election, contends ASD has been “plagued” by repeated controversy since it opened in 2012.

The most recent revelation, a federal investigation into a sexual violence incident that took place in 2014, something kept out of the public eye, is a “real issue,” he adds.

Parkinson points out parents were never notified and “unwittingly” sent their children to the school without being given a choice. He wonders where the school-choice folks are on this one.

The misdeed, or at least knowledge of the alleged misdeed, comes on the heels of reports about ASD hiring a felon to serve as a principal, misuse of student data, non-certification of teachers, as well as a comptroller’s report itemizing misspent money on things such as alcohol for parties.

“I don’t know how any elected official can stand by an organization that receives $110 million in taxpayer (funds) with a track record like this. How can you justify to taxpayers being a good steward over their hard-earned dollars when you continue to support an agency of state government that operates like this?” Parkinson asks.

The public has a right to know what’s happening in its schools, and Parkinson says he believes the details of the federal investigation need to be released, not identities, but at least the basics.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though. Not until the media or some other group reports on ASD’s shortcomings does anyone get much of a status update.

That, Parkinson says, is an “accountability problem.”

“State government allows them to keep having chance after chance after chance,” Parkinson says. “So, the accountability is not just with the ASD. It’s with the decision-makers, also, the people who make the decisions in regard to the ASD.

“And I will challenge you to find any of them who will send their kids to an ASD school.”

Of course, nobody is going to voluntarily shift their children from Germantown High to a struggling school packed with low-income students from marginal homes.

But that’s the task Shelby County and Memphis fight every day.


Anderson says she needs to retool after working for five years with ASD and might do some consulting or work with another system. Though she might be a little burned out, Anderson says in a statement she will always be a “champion” for the children ASD is serving.

No doubt, she deserves a rest because lifting the state’s poorest performing schools isn’t easy, especially with Parkinson bringing up all your shortcomings every couple of months.

The state Department of Education reports Anderson made the decision to leave after helping the district transition “through a significant staff restructure in preparation for the ASD’s new charge under the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act and school improvement plan.

“She personally wanted to provide space for a new leader to take the district forward under this restructure given in part that she had been with the district since its earliest days.”

For the interim post, the state district is putting its faith in Education Department Deputy Commissioner and COO Kathleen Airhart, the Tennessee Superintendent of the Year in 2011, who’s been working behind the scenes for the past year and a half to bring more financial stability in a “reset” for the state district, according to the state department. The state considers her a “natural fit” for heading up a new leadership team in a search for full-time ASD superintendent.

The state district, which has 32 schools, most operated by charter organizations in Memphis, lost a big chunk of coin earlier this year when Race to the Top funds ran out, forcing it to lay off about 29 staff members. It will depend solely on state funding from now on.

In addition, it will take a somewhat lesser role under the ESSA with that law replacing No Child Left Behind this school year. Local school districts will get the first shot at turning around failing schools before the state can think about turning them over to the ASD.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan, which positions the ASD as our most intensive intervention among a series of options for turning around priority schools,” the state Department of Education reports. “This work is key to changing outcomes for students in our state.”


Getting a true picture of ASD schools’ performance also depends on your source.

The turnover rate for teachers in ASD schools averaged 63 percent from 2012-13 to 2014-15 compared to 37 percent for iZone schools, run by local districts. The rate was expected to be higher because teachers had to reapply for jobs and some ASD schools replaced all teachers in the first year, according to a study by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance.

A Vanderbilt study a couple of years ago also showed iZone schools were performing better than those handled by the state district, leading the Legislature’s Black Caucus to call for a moratorium on new schools in the ASD or a requirement to move 50 percent of its schools off the priority list before it took on any more schools. The call came as ASD added four schools in spite of questionable results.

The study gave ASD a break, however, saying it needed more time to make gains. And Education Commissioner Candice McQueen contends the overall performance of students in ASD is improving.

“We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students’ performance,” McQueen says in a statement.

I think that means they’re going to use what works best. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with education is that everyone’s always looking for the next trend, the next big thing to help children learn, when no magic formula really exists.

My late father, who taught English and Spanish for 35 years, would say, “Sometimes learning isn’t fun. You have to sit down and do the work.” One of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t say you can’t. Just do it.”

So, while ASD administrators pretend to be Ponce de Leon looking for a fountain of youth, they’re likely to keep getting bashed by some Memphis leaders who feel their schools are singled out while priority schools in cities such as Chattanooga and Knoxville are allowed to stay with their local system. Nashville has only two schools under ASD’s watchful eye.

Money, as usual, is a factor as well. Shelby and Metro school boards aren’t enthused about public funds going to charter schools because, they say, it siphons dollars away from their system’s regular schools.

Meanwhile, White, who works in conflict management, wishes everyone could just get along together, instead of local systems simply saying, “Oh you’re taking money away from us. We don’t like your ASD schools. Just give us the money and we can do it.”

“I’ve lived in Memphis since 1966, and money doesn’t fix it down there. There’s other challenges, and so if you’re not gonna do it, we’re gonna let someone else try,” he explains.

The problem is, as Parkinson duly notes, ASD isn’t moving schools from the bottom 5 percent, and it keeps stubbing its toe. At the same time, there are so many businesses and charter organizations ingrained in the ASD the state doesn’t want to let them go, he adds.

As a result, they keep getting a hall pass to – who knows – hang out in the boys’ room and pitch pennies and smoke cigarettes. Does anyone do that anymore?

They might as well, because some of their transgressions are even worse than smokin’ in the boys’ room. Yet they keep expecting legislators and the Haslam administration to pat them on the back and say, “It’s OK,” when it’s really not.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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