While Memphis mostly received good news when the state listed its most underachieving schools last week, at least five Shelby County schools appear to be at risk of state takeover.

The move, the most drastic consequence the state can impose to try to fix education, inspires dread in its targets — but studies have shown it has not been effective in raising student achievement.

Shelby County Schools and Tennessee Department of Education officials have declined to name which schools they might take over or close. But a look at the state’s new criteria for when to step in to improve schools provides some clues about which ones are under consideration.

Shelby County Schools has 11 schools that meet the state’s criteria, but that doesn’t mean they are a shoo-in for state takeover. The most vulnerable are:

  • Geeter K-8
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Northwest Prep Academy
  • Wooddale High

Geeter recently shifted into the district’s Empowerment Zone, a program to zero in on student achievement. That designation may shield it from state action, because the program has succeeded in lifting a few schools off the state’s priority list of worst-performing schools.

Six other schools that meet the criteria belong to Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which is designed to improve achievement and has done a better job of boosting test scores than state-run schools have. Because of that, it’s unlikely they would be taken over. The schools are:

  • American Way Middle
  • Hamilton High
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Trezevant High
  • Westwood High

If taken over, a school will leave the Memphis district and land in the state-run Achievement School District, which turns many of its schools over to charter operators. But in six years, the state-run district has not produced the results promised, and researchers say its schools are no better off than other low-performing schools that received no help.

Schools become vulnerable to takeover or closure, according to the state’s plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education, if they have:

  • Two repeat appearances on the priority list of struggling schools, which the state determines every three years
  • A growth score of 3 or less on the state’s 5-point scale of academic improvement, known as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

The rating of schools has been complicated by last spring’s online testing blunders. In response to the widespread snafus, lawmakers prevented the scores from being used as the basis for any state takeovers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her classroom tour of the state.

In assessing schools at risk, Chalkbeat looked at growth scores — a measure of schools’ year-over-year improvement — from the 2016-17 school year. Since those scores didn’t change much in 2017-18, the same schools would likely be on the state’s list.

Before making any decisions, the state will review other information, such as how neighboring schools are doing, how the school compares with others statewide, the percentage of students graduating, and student enrollment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said recently the state will decide on schools’ fate in the next month or so.

Any schools the state takes over will join 28 other state-operated campuses in Memphis, or about one-fifth of schools in the local district.

In planning how to improve schools, the state has vowed to collaborate more with local districts than it has in the past. That previous approach led to frequent protests, mistrust, and racial tensions as charter operators with higher proportions of white staff took over schools in black neighborhoods.

This year, state officials have visited schools on the watchlist to talk about strategies to improve.

What we know about the schools most at risk

The state already flagged American Way Middle and Hawkins Mill Elementary in February as schools that needed the most help. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the state recommended forceful action. Earlier, the state recommended (but by law could not force) closing Hawkins Mill, but Shelby County Schools declined.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits students at American Way Middle School on the first day of school.

The state also recommended in February that American Way Middle join the Achievement School District. Shelby County Schools responded by moving the school into the Innovation Zone, also known as the iZone, which imposes conditions such as a longer school day, signing and renewal bonuses for high-performing teachers, plus community resources for students from low-income families. That usually adds up to about $600,000 per school. The state still may take action on the school, but has not decided yet.

Geeter K-8 is also a likely candidate for state takeover, but recent changes may spare it. In February the state flagged it as needing improvement. Shelby County Schools was already in the process of transferring Geeter into the Empowerment Zone, a cluster of neighborhood schools that employs strategies such as collaboration across schools on lesson plans so teachers can learn from each other.

The Empowerment Zone uses college-student tutors to reduce the adult-to-student ratio in the classroom. This year, the district transformed Geeter, formerly a middle school, into a K-8 by adding elementary students from Manor Lake Elementary.

Georgian Hills Middle and Wooddale High are especially vulnerable to a state takeover. Neither are in the iZone, but are a part of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of closing them.

Principals at the 19 “critical focus” schools get about $300,000 extra to fund improvement plans developed with parents and staff. The state has not indicated whether or not the resulting strategies count as a strong enough intervention, but said in February the local district would lead in creating a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration with the state.

The state deemed that Northwest Prep Academy had improved enough last year to escape the priority list, but the school reappeared on the list this year because of its low graduation rate. The state has not designated Northwest school as an alternative school, but it serves students referred from other schools for behavior or academic issues. It’s unlikely the state would take over this school.

Complicating any plans for the state to take over schools are recent dismal test results from the Achievement School District. Four of the six original schools that the state took over in 2012 remain on the priority school list for their poor performance. So far, McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have stood by the state-run district, though they have conceded the district’s goals were too ambitious.

And with a new governor set to take the helm in January, the future of the district is uncertain.