For the first time, three schools in Tennessee’s turnaround district have shown enough improvement to be eligible to leave next school year.
But because schools have never exited the eight-year-old district for a return to local control, no one is exactly sure how that should happen — not even state officials or lawmakers.
The Memphis schools, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary School, Cornerstone Lester Prep, and Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, were taken over by the state between 2013-2015, and over the last three years have been rated highly by the state for student growth, even while their achievement scores have remained low. If the three schools continue to have success, they could be eligible to leave during the 2020-21 school year, state officials said.
The Achievement School District was created in 2012 to improve the academic performance of struggling schools by putting them under the supervision of independent charter companies. No schools were supposed to remain in the district for more than 10 years. The goal was to move the schools back to the Shelby County or Metro Nashville Public schools districts after they improved.
But it’s not clear how they will return or who will operate them to ensure their continued success. With few details from state officials and no precedent, the three schools eligible for a return now face an uncertain future. At stake is the educational future of about 1,000 students who could have very different experiences depending on who manages the schools.
Jennifer Johnson, a state department spokeswoman, said the official exit and transition plan for the state-run schools is still in the works, although she added that state law gives education Commissioner Penny Schwinn the authority to release a school from the achievement district at any time.
Meanwhile, charter operators do not want to turn over schools that they have worked to improve. And the law is not clear on whether or not they can continue to operate the schools once they are under district control again.
“We would agree, and we believe that the state would agree, that when schools are being successful, they should continue to run the schools school and not hand them back to someone else,” said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone Education Group, which operates two Cornerstone schools in the state-run district that could be up for return.
But Sippel added that the “law is unclear” on whether or not charter operators would remain in charge of a school if it transitions to local control, and that state leaders are talking through the issue with charter network leaders, district officials, and lawmakers this fall.
Shelby County Schools currently oversees 54 charter schools in Memphis, the most in the state. All three achievement schools potentially eligible for a return are in Memphis, as are the vast majority of the district’s 30 schools.
Johnson said Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary School, Cornerstone Lester Prep, and Georgian Hills Elementary School have met the state’s priority exit criteria. The schools have had some of the highest growth scores in this district, and Cornerstone Prep Denver had the highest percentage of students achieving on grade level last year.
If these schools do exit next year, the milestone will come at a time when the Achievement School District is trying to figure out its new identity. The district is leaderless after losing its third superintendent, an academic study found it had not boosted student achievement in its first six years, and the state education commissioner says major structural changes are coming.
When the Achievement School District was first created, the local school districts in Nashville and Memphis wanted the option to run an improved school as a traditional school if it returned, not as a charter, said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who chairs the House Education Committee and has played a big role in shaping the achievement district.
“That was the original intention, but as time went along especially in Shelby County, there was movement to the idea that maybe the charter school could come back under [the local district] and Shelby County Schools could become the operator, not the state,” White said.
Johnson said the state’s interpretation of the law is that an improved charter school would need to submit a charter agreement to the local district and be approved – meaning a local district’s school board could reject the charter school. State law is unclear on what happens if a charter agreement is not accepted by the district. The school could appeal to the State Board of Education, which operates three charter schools that are not part of the achievement district.
White said that the uncertainties in the law aren’t helpful for anyone, but that he’s awaiting the state’s plan before suggesting any changes.
“I do want the state to keep a strong hand in it, but we’re going to have to put more money in these schools if we’re going to move the needle,” White said. “So, my wish is that we all work together, state and local districts, to find the answers. We’re going on year eight now, but we know we’re still struggling like we’re on day one.”
Schwinn has warned that big structural changes could be coming to the district, but details have been sparse. The state said it’s waiting to make decisions until its fall listening tour to hear from communities affected by the achievement district.
Johnson added that following the listening tour, the state plans to have conversations with the Shelby County and Nashville districts about what returning to local control will look like.
A spokeswoman for the Shelby County district said Superintendent Joris Ray spoke with Schwinn about the achievement schools over the summer, but that the district looks forward “to more in-depth conversations about the work and how it will unfold in Shelby County.”