“MEMPHIS, TENN. • In a Mississippi River town where poverty and academic failure have been hallmarks of urban schools for decades, an experiment is underway that could transform how Missouri and other states approach one of the biggest puzzles in education.
Some of the worst schools in this city have been plucked from the control of the local school board and placed under the oversight of the state.
They include schools such as Aspire Hanley Elementary, a source of pride in the southeast Memphis neighborhood of Orange Mound, where parents said they had been unaware of the school’s academic decline until the takeover announcement in late 2012. Last fall, the campus was given over to a California charter school operator that has delivered smaller class sizes, the school’s first playground and the belief that academics are improving.
The approach is predicated on the controversial assumption that chronic school failure demands a state, rather than a local, response — even if that means usurping elected local control of education.
In Tennessee, the approach takes selected bottom-ranked schools and places them into what’s known as the Achievement School District. Its superintendent reports to the state education commissioner. The district operates some schools directly and matches most others with nonprofit charter school operators.
The goal is to catapult the lowest achieving schools to the state’s top 25 percent within five years by using methods that are sometimes fiercely resisted by teachers’ unions, such as frequent testing and performance pay for teachers.
Tennessee is among a growing handful of states that are experimenting with what’s called portfolio management: when a single entity oversees a diverse collection of schools with a wide array of operators. Control is decentralized, leaving most decisions to educators in schools rather than central office administrators. Operators who fail to demonstrate test score gains after a few years are removed and replaced.
In so doing, the state is chasing an elusive notion in education reform — the hope that not just a few struggling schools, but an entire system of schools, can succeed.
“The stakes are pretty high in what we’re trying to do,” said Chris Barbic, the Achievement District’s superintendent, who founded the high-performing YES charter schools in Houston.
Missouri soon may be no longer just a spectator of this reform effort. A consultant’s proposal presented last week to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education bears some similarities to the Tennessee model.
But it also has distinct differences. Rather than merely giving control of a failing district to a state oversight board — like Missouri did in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens — the proposal calls for abolishing districts entirely once they receive the state’s worst performance rating.
State-run offices would be created in their place to oversee the schools, directly running them at first. The offices would select nonprofit groups to run them long term, under the theory that charter school operators and other organizations could bring innovation to schools where district leaders have not.
It’s one of several plans that would amplify Missouri’s approach to troubled school districts. The issue became even more urgent last summer, after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer statute. More than 2,200 students in the unaccredited districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens have transferred to higher performing schools in the region, leaving the two districts in north St. Louis County buckling under a collective $30 million in tuition and transportation costs.
Meanwhile, district officials are struggling to improve academics for the 3,000 children still attending school in Normandy, and 4,100 in Riverview Gardens.
“We need to think about how to rescue those kids,” said Peter Herschend, president of the Missouri Board of Education, during a meeting last week in Jefferson City. “Not how to rescue a district, not how to rescue a teacher or superintendent.”
But as Tennessee has learned, before such a rescue can take place, educators must figure out how to convince parents and communities to accept a radically different approach.
CHALLENGES AND MISSTEPS
In Orange Mound, a scruffy community of small bungalows that was developed by and built for African-Americans in the late 1800s, there was resistance when residents learned the state would take control of Hanley Elementary.
A billboard soon went up at a nearby intersection in protest. People spoke up at hearings and in churches.
“There were various opinions about the motivations behind it,” said Mary Mitchell, a lifelong Orange Mound resident and community historian. “Was this just a political move, or would it impact the children so they could be the best students in the country?”
Failure to fully win over the community at the outset has led to missteps. At Cornerstone Prep, the charter school’s leaders changed the school name and school colors without parent or neighborhood input. Parents later complained of a cultural disconnect at their school, and that students weren’t being treated properly.
When parents at Hanley learned that an out-of-state charter school operator would be coming in, “It caused me to start raising questions,” said Teresena Wright, whose daughter with special needs is now a second-grader at the school. “I didn’t know how my voice would be heard. I didn’t know where to begin.”
Aspire — the nonprofit organization that now runs the school — spent months seeking community support. It flew parents to California to see its schools there. It held a parent pampering day with free manicures and massages in the school gym. Its Memphis staff knocked on doors at apartment complexes, visited churches, held barbecues and spoke at meetings.
The school now has a parent resource center, where parents and grandparents can volunteer and access educational opportunities for themselves.
“I now see the needs in our black community in education being met from the ground up,” said Marlene Henderson, the guardian of a kindergartner, visiting with grandparents in the center one morning.
Parents who are unhappy with Aspire Hanley are free to move their children to open enrollment charter schools or district schools.
But there is a concerted effort to keep them where they are.
Critics of charter schools often charge that they don’t educate the same children as district schools, that they “cream” the population by discouraging special needs children and other challenged kids from applying.
In the Achievement District, all of the charter schools are neighborhood schools that have inherited the existing district’s student body.
“We need to be serving the exact same kids, the same issues,” Barbic said. “If we’re going to beat our chest about how great we are, we have to do it under the same conditions as the district.”
Tennessee used $22 million from a larger federal grant from the Race to the Top program to create the Achievement District. The district’s 22 administrators work out of three trailers in the backyard of Whitney Elementary School.” – By Elisa Crouch
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