charter lineup

Tennessee’s ASD soon will lose one of its first charter school networks, but others say they’re still in the game

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks in October to Memphis parents and teachers at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose one charter operator and get a new one at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

This fall’s surprise announcement that Gestalt Community Schools is leaving Tennessee’s school turnaround district doesn’t appear to be a bellwether for other charter networks operating in the Achievement School District.

Of the state’s 13 charter operators, half that spoke with Chalkbeat said they have no plans to exit the ASD. And several are open to expanding under the state-run district, which oversees 33 public schools in Memphis and Nashville.

“Aspire is focused on growing in Memphis,” said Allison Leslie, Memphis superintendent for the California-based network, which operates three schools in the city and tried last year to add a fourth.

Leaders for Capstone Education Group and Frayser Community Schools said their Memphis-based networks also would like to expand under the ASD. Capstone wants to grow from three to five schools in Memphis by 2021, while Frayser Community Schools, now with one school, has expressed interest in managing the two that Gestalt will leave behind.

Other operators characterize Gestalt’s decision as an outlier rooted mostly in enrollment challenges in North Memphis. The network had sought to turn around two low-performing schools in an area where the city’s population of school-age children had hollowed out in recent years.

Gestalt Community Schools was one of the first charter networks to join Tennessee’s turnaround district that launched in 2012; now it will be the first to depart. Leaders of the Memphis-based network announced plans in October to pull out at the end of this school year. CEO Yetta Lewis blamed chronic under-enrollment, exacerbated by a state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment for ASD schools. Gestalt will continue to operate five other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.


Read our Q&A with Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis about why Gestalt is leaving the ASD and lessons learned.


The work has been hard for ASD charter operators tasked with taking schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and turning them around in five years — a goal that ASD leaders now acknowledge was unrealistic.

Created in 2010 with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, the ASD recruited and incentivized charter networks to join its portfolio of schools and granted them broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting. But especially in Memphis, charter leaders have grappled with high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition in communities with intense loyalty to neighborhood schools.

Like schools statewide, charters also have had to deal with the void in state test scores in 2015-16 due to Tennessee’s cancellation last spring of its new TNReady assessment for K-8 students. The bumpy testing transition prompted ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson to halt takeovers of low-performing schools for one year.

Enrollment has been another challenge. Gestalt has not been alone in that struggle, but its two ASD schools — Klondike Elementary and Humes Middle — suffered some of the district’s largest enrollment losses: about 13 percent of their student population in the last year.

“We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis,” Lewis said.

With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. This fall, the district kicked off a series of trainings in Memphis and Nashville, inviting community leaders to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this story.

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.