From Governing Magazine:

Memphis Makes the Nation’s Most Ambitious Effort to Fix Failed Schools

What happens in Memphis reveals the power — and limits — of education reform.
by | October 2014
The tension around the conference table was palpable.

Principals and educators from half a dozen schools in the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser were meeting a week before the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Sitting at the head of the table was Bobby White, the co-principal of Frayser High School. For the past year, the group had been convening as part of a federally funded effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood, an enclave of 50,000 residents, almost all of them African-American, that has long been one of state’s poorest. The group around the table was supposed to be working on the education component of the plan. So far, there had been more talk than work. The purpose of today’s meeting, said White, was to develop an action agenda. “We’ve been meeting for almost a year,” he noted. “It’s time for us to stop talking and start acting.”

But when Bob Nardo, the sole white principal in the room, proposed the group set a big goal involving the whole neighborhood, Stephanie Love, a Frayser resident who was running for the Shelby County Board of Education, said she didn’t think that was realistic. There was, she said, a trust issue that had be acknowledged, an elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. The problem, she said, was the state Achievement School District (ASD). “Shelby County Schools is scared of what ASD is going to do. ASD is scared to say, ‘OK, we may not be what we need to be.’”

Indeed, Tennessee’s Achievement School District is at the heart of just about every conversation on improving education in Memphis right now. That’s because in recent years, public schools in Memphis have answered to one of two masters. One is the Shelby County school board; the other is the state ASD, which has the statutory right to take over schools whose test scores place them in the bottom 5 percent of performers statewide. It exercised that right in Memphis, where the state now runs or oversees 22 schools. Twelve of Frayser’s 14 public schools, including Frayser High School, fell into that bottom 5 percent. As a result, most of the people at the table, including White, report to the ASD. Most, but not all.

Sitting to White’s left was Kimberly Adams, the principal of Westside Elementary School. Her school reports to Shelby County, and while she appreciated the help that the group around the table had given her in the past (notably in retaining her school’s pre-K program), she worried about ASD encroachment. That’s why, when one of the participants suggested that the group around the table could collaborate on a brochure that would inform neighborhood parents of their educational options, Adams objected. She didn’t want nearby ASD schools picking off her students and threatening her school’s well-being. “I want my kids to be with me,” she said. “I want to make sure our doors stay open, our teachers stay employed, and my teachers get educated by teachers that I know are qualified to educate them in our district in this neighborhood and who understand what our kids are going through.”

“I know that my teachers can do that,” she said pointedly. As for the ASD, well, that was a different story.

“I appreciate your willingness to say what other people are thinking,” said Nardo, of her challenge to the ASD. As the meeting broke up, it became clear that there would be no approval of action the group could take — not even on a brochure.

Welcome to the skirmishes on the front line of what may be the nation’s most significant experiment in taking over low-performance public schools. Tennessee’s Achievement School District is a story Governing is covering with a level of ambition suitable to its subject. Over the course of the coming school year, we’ll be following state and local leaders, parents and children, teachers and school administrators, social workers and police officers, community activists and politicians, through what is shaping up to be education reform’s most critical year. We hope to move beyond the policy briefs and backgrounders that so often marshal facts behind an opinion that is already firmly held. Instead, we will explore ambiguities and reframe questions as we follow the implementation of a state policy that was crafted to make a difference in its citizen’s lives, particularly those who live in poor, urban neighborhoods.

The stakes could not be higher. At issue is nothing less than one of the country’s most pressing questions: In a nation where Democrats and Republicans alike say they want to provide “equal opportunity,” can failing schools be transformed into successful schools in short order and on a large scale? If not, have the nostrums of the education reform movement distracted politicians, public officials and the public from the real challenge — the problems of poverty, segregation, crime and family structure?

Bobby White grew up in Frayser. Over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has seen its crime and poverty rates surge. (Brandon Dill)

The practice of states taking over struggling urban schools isn’t new. New Jersey moved first, in 1989; Kentucky followed its example the following year. During the mid-1990s, states seized control of urban school districts more than a dozen times, including high-profile interventions in Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland.

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