Inside a kindergarten classroom at Cornerstone Preparatory School in Binghampton, a little boy is seated at his desk, working diligently on an iPad. A handful of other kids are also working on iPads, while others are gluing paper cutouts of numbers to a worksheet.
Cornerstone's Principal Lisa Settle, who is visiting the classroom, approaches the boy with the iPad and asks him to open his word games app. The boy eagerly opens the app, excited to show his principal what he can do. The screen displays a cartoon image of a tin can and an image of a piece of wide-ruled notebook paper where he's supposed to use his finger to spell out what he's looking at.
"Do you know what that is?" Settle asks.
"It's a can!" he says, as he begins to spell out the letters C-A-N with his tiny index finger. He spells the word correctly, but the app doesn't accept his answer.
"It doesn't like that 'a,' does it?" says Settle, taking the iPad and writing a perfect lowercase "a" with her finger. She hands it back to the boy and says, "You need to make sure you make your letters neat, okay? Good job. Keep going."
Settle and her staff's emphasis on perfection have helped the failing school make some headway. Since the 2012-13 school year, charter school Cornerstone Prep has operated the school under the state's Achievement School District (ASD), the state's answer to improving schools with scores that fall in the bottom five percent statewide. Schools operated by the ASD are removed from the local school district and taken over by charter school operators.
Before Cornerstone took over, the school was a Shelby County School (SCS) known as Lester School. In 2011, before the state takeover, only 10.5 percent of Lester's students were proficient in math, 7.9 percent in reading and language arts, and 12.8 percent in science. Cornerstone has since made modest gains.
"When we came into the building, most of our third graders were below pre-K [level]. We had a lot of students with undiagnosed needs, and that's heartbreaking," Settle said. "We had to go back and do a lot of back-filling and teach a lot of foundational skills. We still have a lot more work to do."
"We still have a lot more work to do" could probably be the motto for the ASD. It could also be the tagline for SCS' Innovation Zone (iZone), the county-run alternative for dealing with priority schools. Since the 2012-13 school year, both have made gains overall, but some schools were so behind that it'll take a few more years to see real improvement.
As both districts work to improve the schools they've taken over, another 23 SCS schools that have not been taken over by the state or the iZone remain on the state priority list, meaning they fall in the bottom five percent statewide. Those schools are eligible for takeover by the state or the iZone in the future, a prospect that has some parents and faculty fighting mad.
ASD: How It Works
When SCS merged with Memphis City Schools (MCS), it inherited a long list of failing schools, most of which are in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods. "It's not all about money. There are poor children who do well in school, but many of these children have some type of dysfunctional family structure. It could be related to unemployment, imprisonment, or having a parent on drugs," said SCS Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones. "We're trying to educate those children, and we don't have parental involvement."
To deal with the issue of failing schools, the ASD was created in 2010 as part of Tennessee's Race to the Top grant. The state gave the ASD charter authorizing authority, meaning the ASD can match failing schools that once belonged under control of the local school district with charter operators from across the country.
Currently, the ASD operates 22 schools in the state, but they'll have 28 in the 2015-16 school year. Six of those new schools are in Shelby County — SCS schools Denver, Brookmeade, and Florida-Kansas elementary schools and Airways and Wooddale middle schools, and a new charter school operated by KIPP Memphis. The ASD only runs one school in Nashville now, and it's taking over one more there next school year.
"If you look at where the bottom five-percent schools are statewide, they're clustered in four places — Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. And there are a small handful of rural schools," said ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic. "We're only three years old in terms of running schools, so we wanted to start where there was the biggest need. That was in Memphis, and we've added some in Nashville. We want to get those sites working well before we look at adding additional parts of the state."
Here's how it works: "Every three years, the [Tennessee] Department of Education runs a list of priority schools. They give us the list and say, 'This is the list of schools we're expecting you to improve,'" Barbic said. "Any school on that list could come into the ASD."
The bottom five percent of the state currently represents 85 schools, 69 of which are in Shelby County. So Barbic says they look at a few criteria to determine which schools to take over each year.
"We look at things like recent growth — how many more kids were proficient in reading, math, and science this past year than the previous year? And we look at whether or not the school is on the list for the first time or if it was on the list the previous time it was run," Barbic said, citing that priority is given to those schools that are on the list more than once.
A short list of available schools is given to the ASD's charter schools, and a volunteer group known as the Achievement Advisory Council weighs in.
"We get input from communities and families on the short list, and we give charter operators opportunities to have large or small group meetings with folks in the school communities, so they can get to know the charter operators and what they provide," Barbic said.
Once the charters are matched with schools, all faculty from the former county school are laid off, but they're invited to apply with the charter operator.
There's no one model for how an ASD school is run since they're all run by independent charter operators. Some schools, like Cornerstone, have two teachers per classroom and apply a blended learning model, meaning kids work at their own pace. At Cornerstone, each child has an iPad set up with lessons appropriate for their current skill level.
By law, the ASD has 10 years to turn a school around, but Barbic says the ASD's goal is to move those bottom five percent schools to the top 25 percent in five years.
"We look at the charters in three-year increments to make sure they're tracking toward what we want to see," Barbic said. "At the end of the 10 years, the charter comes up for renewal, and then we move the schools back into local control. The intent was never for the state to run these schools forever."
iZone: How It Works
A first grade teacher at Cherokee Elementary, an iZone school in Orange Mound, is quizzing her students on vowel sounds. She calls one boy to the front of the class and asks him to read aloud a question that's projected onto a white board. Below the question are a set of four multiple choice answers.
"I need a collegiate voice," the teacher instructs the boy before he speaks.
"Which word has the same vowel sound as cook?" the boy reads.
Only one of the choices rhymes with cook, and the class of 10 or so students all know the answer. They enthusiastically shout: "shook!"
Something the teacher and her colleagues are doing has worked, because Cherokee shot up to 26.7 percent proficiency in reading in the past three years since the iZone took over. In 2011, before the takeover, only 11 percent of its students were proficient in reading. The same thing has happened with math scores — up to 43.8 percent in 2014 versus 16.5 percent in 2011.
"When we first brought the staff in, the way we framed it was, in 2011, only 16 percent of the children at Cherokee were proficient [in math], which is almost like saying that 84 percent of the patients who went to this doctor died. That really paints a picture of how students were dying at Cherokee academically," said Cherokee Principal Rodney Rowan, who was hired when the iZone took over the school in the 2012-13 school year.
The science gains are even more impressive — 41.9 percent proficient in 2014 versus 7 percent proficient in 2011.
"I was not at Cherokee in 2011, but I'm convinced they didn't open a science book. We're talking about 93 percent of the children failed a TCAP test in science," Rowan said.
Shortly after the creation of the ASD, the state allowed SCS to create its own method for dealing with priority schools. The district can select schools from the priority list to run using its iZone model. Like the ASD, the iZone also began operation in the 2012-13 school year. There are 17 iZone schools.
"Our iZone is our district's version of the ASD," said SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. "In those schools, we give the principals the autonomy to select their staff and the curriculum design."
The way the school is run is primarily set by its principal rather than dictated by SCS' central office. As with the ASD, faculty at schools chosen for the iZone are let go, but they're invited to reapply. New principals are hired for those schools, and they are in charge of hiring teachers. Only teachers with Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM) scores (SCS' system for evaluating teachers) of three, four, or five are eligible for jobs at iZone schools (TEM scores range from one to five, with one being the worst and five the best).
Rowan retained only two of the former teachers from Cherokee.
"If you're interviewing someone for a teaching job, and they're saying, 'Well, the parents are blah, blah, blah,' that's not good," Rowan said. "We know the parents aren't as active as we would like them to be, but I say to my teachers that it may be a parent's responsibility, but it's your job."
Parents Just Don't Understand
At an SCS boarding meeting in December, a number of parents and school faculty in the standing-room-only board room held up hand-made signs calling for a moratorium on state school takeovers. During the public comment period, a woman named Hattie Woodard approached the podium, proudly displaying her "Moratorium Now" sign.
"Let's put a stop to it! These are our children. Let's stop the ASD takeover!" she exclaimed as she addressed the SCS board.
Since last fall, parents of SCS students and faculty have flooded the board meetings with cries against the ASD's plan to take over six more county schools in the 2015-16 school year. One would think parents would be pleased that more attention is being paid to the district's failing schools. But it's not that simple.
"I think some parents are hearing that their school is failing for the first time," Barbic said. "That's on us and SCS to do a better job getting that information out to families prior to the [charter] matching."
Hopson agrees: "I think we haven't done a good job at all with community engagement because there are so many misconceptions about school data. People will show up [to an SCS board meeting] and say, 'This is a great school. My kid is doing great.' But when you go inside the numbers in most of the schools on the priority list, less than one in six kids is proficient in math and reading."
There's also some misunderstanding about how the law works. The cries to the board for a moratorium are useless.
"You say 'Save our schools. Place a moratorium on [the ASD].' If this board had the opportunity to do that, we would. But we are bound by certain legal obligations," Jones told those gathered at that December board meeting. "The state tells us what we can and cannot do. Just because you elected us doesn't mean we can do whatever you want us to do. It's not about us not wanting to fight. Legally, we don't have that option."
Jones said she doesn't have a problem with charter schools, but she does feel like the state takeovers create more chaos for students already affected by the shake-up of the SCS/MCS merger.
"It seems like, for the first time in [a couple years], the suburbs are finally calming down [since they've created their own districts]. But we're still in flux," Jones said. "Every year, we're still trying to figure out how many schools we'll have and who is being educated where. Children need stability."
ASD vs. iZone: The Scores
Another reason for the anger may lie with the ASD's performance thus far. Although the ASD is making gains as a whole, the iZone schools are out-performing the ASD.
"The iZone had 13 schools before last year, and 7 of those 13 were on track to go from the bottom five percent to the top 25 percent in the state," Hopson said.
According to SCS' statistics, iZone schools made 28.8 percent gains in math, 21.6 percent gains in reading, and 41.2 percent gains in science in 2014. Compare that with ASD's 21.8 percent gains in math, 17 percent gains in reading, and 24.6 percent gains in science in 2014.
Barbic believes it's a little too early to judge the overall ASD scores since some schools have only been in state control for a year. But he says the ASD schools they've been running for two years are showing growth.
"Last year, we had 17 schools, but only six of them were in their second year. We're really encouraged by the progress those [second year] schools are making. Those schools were making 11-point gains in just two years time," Barbic said.
At a recent meeting at South Side Middle, an SCS priority school that may merge into iZone school Riverview Middle next school year pending board approval, one parent suggested that all SCS schools be run as iZone schools. But the state funding allotted for iZone simply won't cover that, Griffin said.
"You pay more to go to the orthodontist than you do the regular dentist," she said.
State Representative Antonio Parkinson believes it's up to the state to pour more funding into the iZone.
"The performance of iZone schools has outpaced the performance of ASD schools, so that begs the question from the state level as to why we're not shifting more resources into the iZone model versus that of any other model," Parkinson said.
But Barbic believes that turning schools around should be a multi-pronged approach. "It shouldn't be left up to the district alone because, if we followed that logic, they would have already turned these schools around [before the creation of the ASD], and we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place," Barbic said. "But there still needs to be a place for the district to have some skin in the game for solving this problem on their own. In Memphis, where you've got a large portion of these [priority] schools, we could have never taken them all on ourselves. By working together, we can spread capacity across more schools than we can by fighting with each other."
The Future of Priority Schools
Not everyone agrees with Barbic's attitude of "working together." State Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed a bill to abolish the ASD at the end of the 2015-16 school year. The bill would give control of the schools the ASD has already taken over back to their local districts.
Representative Raumesh Akbari of Memphis has filed a bill that would stop the ASD-approved practice that allows some charter operators to phase a school in grade by grade. For example, Cornerstone is phasing in Lester School — the first year, it only ran pre-kindergarten through the third grade, while SCS ran the rest of the grades. In the second year, Cornerstone added grades four through six, and next year, it'll have grades six through eight.
"With phasing in, you're not considering the [older] students at the school who led to the school being placed on the priority list to begin with," Akbari said. "It's almost like you're turning around a building rather than a school. If this bill passes, charter operators will have to take an entire school."
Akbari is also sponsoring a piece of legislation that would rank schools on the priority list from poorest-performing to highest-performing and would require the ASD to work from the bottom up. In the past, the ASD has been accused of cherry-picking schools that have higher scores.
That was the case with SCS' Raleigh-Egypt High School, which was already making gains from the year prior when it made ASD's short list last year. After push-back from the community, however, the charter school set to match with Raleigh-Egypt pulled out. It will remain an SCS school next year.
Last week, State Representative Mike Stewart of Nashville called on Governor Bill Haslam to conduct a review of the ASD following the release of a Department of Education audit that found some issues with mismanagement of federal grant funds and other financial irregularities by the ASD.
The issues involved the ASD inappropriately charging a grant program for expenditures incurred before the grant award was effective and failing to properly review invoices paid to charters in the 2012-13 school year. But ASD General Counsel and COO Rich Haglund said the findings have been addressed, and charter schools have been asked to pay back the state about $66,000.
"[The findings] were not allegations of illegal activity. They're just findings of [how we need to be] tightening practices," Haglund said.
With so much legislation on the table relating to the ASD, coupled with the intense pushback from SCS parents and faculty over the state takeover announcements last fall, Hopson said SCS is ramping up its efforts to improve the priority schools not under ASD or iZone control.
"We've decided to hire more reading and math personnel to give those schools in the bottom five percent some additional support," Hopson said. "And I envision having an authentic discussion with the community about the state of the schools. There's a disconnect between the performance of these schools and the perception of these schools, and it's incumbent on the district to make it better."