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Before making big changes, Tennessee plans seven community hearings on the future of school turnaround

As the future of Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district hangs in question, the State Department of Education is planning seven meetings to get feedback on its work with struggling schools from parents, teachers, and their communities.

The state’s top education leaders will make two stops in Memphis and two in Nashville – the cities that are home to the 30 schools in the Achievement School District. They also will take their listening tour to Jackson and Chattanooga – cities that have schools on the state’s list of struggling schools.

Official dates haven’t been set yet, but the state said the tour would likely occur in October.

Tennessee tackles improving academic performance through its state-run district and is trying to improve the oversight of its charter schools, whose students have continued to lag on state exams. The state also gives extra attention to struggling schools outside of the district.

“As we rethink, we want to hear from communities and families what they want to be true for their child,” said Eve Carney, who oversees all the state’s school improvement efforts. “We expect that from the tour, we will make adjustments to support the structure of school turnaround and the ASD.”

The community meetings are a critical step for state education chief Penny Schwinn, who is still in her first year on the job. Schwinn said in July that major structural changes are ahead for the achievement district, which has struggled to turn its low-performing schools around.

Seven years after its creation, the achievement district’s third leader left last summer; a study found the program has not improved student achievement; and no new schools will join the district this year school year.

But, so far, Schwinn has offered little insight into what any major changes could look like, outside of calling for greater accountability for the charter schools that make up the achievement district, which takes over schools and gives them more autonomy than traditional public schools. Schwinn’s office said the state is waiting to hear first from communities who live near and work in the schools.

Third-grader Kenyari Harmon, 8, writes a story about her favorite athlete during the Read to be Ready literacy camp held at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis' Frayser neighborhood. June 27, 2019.

PHOTO: Kathryn Palmer/Chalkbeat
Third-grader Kenyari Harmon, 8, writes a story about her favorite athlete, Serena Williams, during the Read to be Ready literacy camp held at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood.

Drew Sippel, who leads a charter organization under the achievement district, said he and other leaders have been anticipating the state releasing its plan this fall for the district’s future.

“What we do feel from [the state] is a belief that the ASD should continue, a belief that it is possible that some schools are having success even though the district data across all the schools is not where we want it,” said Sippel, executive director of Capstone Education Group, which runs Cornerstone Prep Denver and two other schools in the Achievement School District.

A national search for a new leader of the Achievement School District also won’t begin until after these sessions and any subsequent changes to the district, according to the state. Currently, two interims based in Memphis are sharing the load of leading the district.

“The listening tour is a major step in the process as it is essential that we get feedback from the impacted stakeholders and districts to ensure that the plan sets schools and students up for success,” state spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said in an email.

After these sessions, the state plans to submit an update to Tennessee’s current accountability plan, crafted in response to the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The plan currently calls the achievement district the state’s “most intensive intervention.”

Johnson said that the state has started to develop a list of metrics to hold achievement district charter schools accountable – a framework that was supposed to be in place all along, but has been implemented inconsistently because of district’s leadership changes.

Also on the list of changes coming for the district: A new position dedicated solely to improving academic performance. The state is hiring for a director of accountability for the district, who would compare academic achievement in district charter schools with the metrics developed by the state, replace charter operators that aren’t cutting it, and help schools that are performing well exit the district.

The state has never replaced a charter operator that has performed poorly, though that was a part of the original vision for the district. A school has also never exited the district due to high academic gains, though Schwinn said that could happen this school year.

Carney said the state is looking at candidates for the director position now, but the job could change as the district changes.

“If we make adjustments, we didn’t want to get out in front of it too much before giving the community the chance to give input,” she said.

Regina Dowell is one Memphis community member excited about the listening sessions, though she said she hopes the state gives parents plenty of notice so they can make arrangements to attend. Dowell leads the Parent-Teacher-Student Association in Frayser, a north Memphis neighborhood that houses several achievement district schools.

“The vision is not clear at all for the ASD, if it’s going to continue,” Dowell said “How long before you phase it out, if you phase out, and what are you going to phase in? There always needs to be a treatment for low performing schools.”

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