When Outsiders Take Over Schools: Lessons From Memphis

Tennessee's new Achievement District gives control of some public schools over to charter networks, with mixed results.

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Associated Press

MEMPHIS — Depending on who you talk to, Memphis is rapidly becoming one of the best cities to teach in America—or one of the worst.

For Amanda Montgomery, a 24-year-old teacher, for instance, the takeover of her elementary school by Aspire Public Schools—the California-based charter network—has brought smaller class sizes and more-consistent mentoring. "I have a lot more coaching ... and supports," she says.

But Sarah Kennedy-Harper, a veteran special-education teacher at Memphis’s Northside High School, aggressively opposed a similar takeover at Northside, knowing she could lose some job security. "I need to pay my bills," Kennedy-Harper says. "I can’t afford to be at a school where they could hand us pink slips at any time and say, 'We don’t need your services.'"

The city's schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency.

At the heart of these changes is the state-run Achievement School District, created in 2010 with the intent of turning around Tennessee's lowest-performing schools. Some of the schools are run by state-appointed officials; others are turned over to charter operators. Of the 16 schools pulled into the Achievement District so far, 15 of them are in Memphis. A locally elected school board continues to run most of the city’s schools, and the city also has charter schools that are independent of the Achievement District.

The Memphis landscape epitomizes what a growing number of educators and public officials describe as portfolio management: when an array of operators—a traditional district, the state, charter operators, community groups—run some of a city’s schools instead of a single entity maintaining control. Schools’ very existence hinges on test-score gains. Those that underperform are, like weak stocks, transferred, repackaged, or dropped outright.

Supporters argue that the strategy saves children from attending chronically underperforming schools. Critics maintain it treats educators and students like widgets that can be reshuffled without regard to the human toll. Other cities pursuing comparable models include New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Tennessee’s Achievement District is modeled in part on Louisiana’s state-run Recovery School District, which absorbed most of New Orleans’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.

In Memphis, where state officials plan to increase the size of the Achievement District to about 22 schools by next fall—turning several of the schools over to charter operators—the response has been decidedly mixed.

When a charter group took control at Cornerstone Prep last fall, for instance, some parents and community leaders complained that school leaders and teachers lacked cultural sensitivity and instituted overly harsh rules. Other parents have come to appreciate Cornerstone’s hardworking teachers and intense focus on academics. "There are two teachers to a class," says Sharanda Thomas, whose son is a fifth-grader at the school. "It's more hands-on. I think it’s better all the way around."

The Achievement District is still in its early stages, but the reception so far underscores a key challenge facing similar efforts across the country: Will communities embrace schools run by largely unknown and private organizations? How important is community acceptance? And, for that matter, who even constitutes the community?

Bringing Neighborhoods on Board

As the experience at Cornerstone illustrates, broad community support for schools matters to at least some degree—but parent and student support matters most.

Cornerstone had a rocky reception during the 2012-13 school year after allegations that some staff members, in their zeal for structure and discipline, prohibited students from using the bathroom and removed students' shoes as a punishment.

Sara Lewis, who has served on the the newly merged Memphis and Shelby County School boards, joined leaders from the local chapter of the NAACP in complaining that the staff as a whole lacked knowledge of African-American culture and history. "Someone should have taught them African-American culture 101," she says. (At Cornerstone, the student body is overwhelmingly African-American; school leaders say two-thirds of the staff members are white and one-third are members of racial minorities.)

Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the Achievement District, says that initially Cornerstone’s leaders were "so focused on getting the academic and school part right that they had blinders on to the fact that there was a whole community there that didn’t know who they were."

LaTonya Hunt said her 10-year-old daughter was terrified to start at Cornerstone this school year because of all the community strife. "My baby was so nervous," she says. "She kept saying, 'I don’t want to go to Cornerstone. I don’t want to go to Cornerstone.'" Meanwhile, Hunt struggled to determine how much of the pushback came from parents with students at the school as opposed to neighborhood residents with little first-hand knowledge of what went on inside the walls. 

She decided to give Cornerstone a chance, telling the principal, "As soon as I notice her grades dropping or that something is not right, then I move her."

Drew Sippel, Cornerstone's executive director, says the school struggled to win buy-in from some students and parents during its first year at least partly because of the unusual way in which charters operate in the Achievement District. In many cities, parents select charters based on an interest in their educational approach or past results. But the charters that open in the Achievement District inherit the students from the neighborhood schools they replace.

Sippel and his colleagues have made changes to ingratiate themselves with parents and the broader community, including honoring residents' attachment to the neighborhood school, Lester, that they displaced. School leaders changed Lester’s name to Cornerstone when they took over the elementary school in 2012, but when they absorb the middle school next year its name will remain Lester and the colors will also stay the same. The Achievement District as a whole has also created a volunteer advisory council partly in an effort to bolster its relationship with the communities it serves.

"It’s a long process to build relationships and trust," says Sippel. He said the school has won over some parents but still has work to do with others. "Ask me in five years if we’re a trusted institution in the community."

So far, Hunt says she's happy she gave Cornerstone a try. Her daughter "loves it because the teachers are not just throwing work at them, and they have one-on-one help," she says. Many neighborhood residents "were looking at these white people coming into the neighborhood and taking over ... They weren’t looking at whether it was good for kids."

But she's glad they are keeping the Lester name at the middle school. If Cornerstone can find a way to continue its strong academics while respecting community traditions, she believes that parents and neighborhood residents will embrace it over time. "I loved Lester," she says. "I went there. My kids went there."

Veteran Teachers Decry Changes

Some of the fiercest opposition to the Achievement District has come not from parents or community leaders, but from veteran teachers.

The growth of the Achievement District—whose teachers do not have tenure— is only one of several sweeping changes for Memphis teachers. They are also facing the merger of the county and city school districts, a new teacher evaluation system, and reduced tenure protections across the board.

"There is a lot of unrest and uncertainty," says Kennedy-Harper. "I hope we’ll get back to some normalcy."

When a school is absorbed into the Achievement District, teachers must reapply for their jobs. Officials at the Memphis Education Association, the local teachers union, say they aren’t sure how many teachers have been displaced or lost their jobs as a result. With so much change happening at once, they say it's difficult to determine the effect of one change versus that of another.

"We’re being bombarded by all sides," says Kennedy-Harper, who sys she would not reapply for her job if the Achievement District eventually takes over Northside.

When Cornerstone took over Lester elementary school a year and a half ago, all the teachers had the option of applying. Only one did, says Sippel. "Most that we talked to said, 'I can’t make that step back in tenure, benefits, and seniority,'" Sippel says. Most of Cornerstone’s current teachers have between two and four years experience, he says.

At Hanley Elementary School, which was taken over by Aspire this fall, 10 previous Hanley teachers were rehired. Nearly all the rehired faculty-members are affiliated with the Memphis Teacher Residency an alternative teacher training program through which new teachers work in schools with the support of coaches while simultaneously taking master’s level coursework in education. Aspire hired about 20 teachers who were new to the school, said Allison Leslie, Aspire’s executive director in Memphis.

Montgomery, one of the Hanley teachers who reapplied and stayed, says she can understand why many of her more experienced colleagues did not. "It felt like a takeover and it's hard to see past that," she says. "A lot of the teachers went to Hanley and taught at the school for so long it's hard to see it as a good change." Because she was only in her third year of teaching, Montgomery also had little to lose in the way of seniority by staying on at Hanley.

Although Montgomery is pleased with Aspire’s leadership at the school so far, she regrets the loss of some of her more seasoned colleagues, many of them with deep roots in the historically black neighborhood surrounding the school, known as Orange Mound. "There were a lot of teachers who grew up in Orange Mound and live in Orange Mound," says Montgomery, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. "They brought a lot to the table in terms of their experience living and working in Orange Mound. It was really sad to see them go."

The Long Haul for Better Results, Relations

Whether the "portfolio" approach succeeds in Memphis in the long-term will likely depend on whether its backers can strike a balance between respect for localism and desire for results.

Among some proponents of Memphis-style reforms, "there’s just not much understanding of the history of localism and suspicion of outsiders," says Jeff Henig, a professor of education and political science at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. "They are not always paying attention to the learned lessons on the dangers of relying on folks who come from the outside."

Sara Lewis, for instance, acknowledges that something needed to be done to improve city schools' dismal results (and for that reason, she is more supportive of the Achievement District than some of her allies). But she worries about the danger of imposing so many changes on a community. "Education is a collective entity," she says. "It’s not someone at the top pushing stuff down."

Backers of the portfolio approach being tested in Memphis often argue that strong results—in the form of improved test scores and college matriculation rates—will win over skeptics in the end. Indeed, the Achievement District has staked out the ambitious goal of lifting schools that perform in the bottom five percent in the state to the top 25 percent within five years. But although the district is in the early stages, the results have been modest so far. During the 2012-13 school year, the district’s schools as a group made modest gains in math and science and fell in reading. In science, for example, the proficiency rate in the district’s schools rose from 16.5 in 2012 to 24.2 in 2013 while it fell from 18.1 to 13.6 over the same time period in reading. Barbic acknowledges that there is still work to be done, and says that in hindsight he might have started with a smaller number of schools. (Some individual schools, including Cornerstone, have demonstrated significant gains. The percentage of third graders scoring proficient or advanced on the state’s standardized math test jumped from two to nearly 11 percent under the first year of Cornerstone’s stewardship, for instance.)

Henig says school reformers who foist major changes on a community with the promise of improved results had better be prepared to deliver. "If data don't sharply show the advantage then they've got to win over hearts," Henig says. "And I don’t think they’ve figured out how to do that yet."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. It originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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