MEMPHIS, Tenn. » Not far off a scruffy boulevard lined with dollar stores and payday loan shops in a neighborhood of run-down brick bungalows, Corning Achievement Elementary School here is a pristine refuge, with gleaming tile floors and signs in classrooms proclaiming "Whatever it takes."
In this Mississippi River town marked by pockets of entrenched black poverty, some of the worst schools in the state are in the midst of a radical experiment in reinventing public education.
Starting last fall, Tennessee began removing schools with the lowest student test scores and graduation rates from the oversight of local school boards and pooling them in a special state-run district. Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and from poor families, is ground zero: 80 percent of the bottom-ranked schools in the state are here.
Tennessee’s Achievement School District, founded as part of the state’s effort to qualify for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant, is one of a small handful of state-run districts intended to rejuvenate chronically struggling schools. Louisiana’s Recovery School District, created in 2003, is the best-known forerunner, and this year Michigan also set up a state district for failing schools. In February, Virginia legislators passed a measure to set up a similar statewide district for failing schools."
The achievement district is a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers unions and some parent groups.
Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.
While some parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders hail signs of progress in the seven months the achievement district has been in existence, others have complained about a lack of racial sensitivity and have accused the new district of sidelining experienced teachers, many of whom are black. About 97 percent of the students in the achievement district schools are black, compared with less than half the teachers.
"We’re not just asking people to do something incrementally different in a system that is fundamentally broken and the same," said Chris Barbic, the achievement district’s superintendent and a Teach for America alumnus who went on to found the Yes Prep chain of 11 charter schools in Houston.
Barbic, who combines the kinetic energy of an entrepreneur with a politician’s gift for listening, hopes to take over 35 schools in Tennessee over the next three years. "I want to create a system where we have great schools of all types," he said, "and fewer lousy ones of all types."
Last fall, the achievement district took over six schools, five of them in Memphis. It is running three of these schools directly, while nonprofit charter management organizations run the other two. This fall, the district will take over nine more schools, with charter operators — including well-known names like KIPP and Aspire Public Schools — running six of them.
Even with drastic overhauls, turnaround is difficult. "Sometimes people confuse big organizational shifts with new teachers and managements as magic," said Deborah Ball, dean of the school of education at University of Michigan. "But there is no magic."
The leadership turnover has been bumpiest at Cornerstone Prep, a nonprofit charter group that took over the prekindergarten through third grade at a public school in one of the poorest Memphis neighborhoods last fall.
No teachers remain from the previous year, and over a quarter of the new staff was hired through the Memphis Teacher Residency, a program for young college graduates, and Teach for America.
Outside the school, signs celebrate rising scores on interim tests the students took in August and January. "2nd and 3rd grade Prepsters scored higher than 98 (PERCENT) of the norm!" one banner read.
Many parents say these scores have come at a cost. At one explosive community meeting in December, parents complained that children had suffered repeated bathroom accidents under strict new disciplinary policies. Others fumed that teachers were taking shoes from students caught fiddling with them.
"What are the sacrifices we’re making in order to educate them?" said LaShanna Rogers, whose 7-year-old daughter, Rokaria, is in second grade at Cornerstone.
On a recent school day, teachers in classrooms named after colleges (Wake Forest One; Columbia Two) repeatedly reminded students to sit with their hands folded, eyes tracking the teacher. Whenever a teacher asked a question, wiggling hands shot into the air. The class rewarded correct answers by bellowing cheers of "Good job!" or "Right on!"
Community leaders say that in the rush to raise test scores, Cornerstone’s leaders lack cultural competence.
"They don’t understand black folk," said Sara L. Lewis, a member of the merged Memphis and Shelby County School Board. "They don’t understand our values or events in our history." Lewis said taking away students’ shoes, for example, invoked connotations of masters who did the same to punish slaves.
Drew Sippel, a former corporate executive and church administrator who founded Cornerstone as a private faith-based academy three years ago, said teachers no longer touch students’ shoes. He acknowledged that his team could have gone further with community outreach. "We didn’t speak to as many people as we could have," he said.
Some community members say parents and students are still adjusting.
"I think sometime where I come from, people don’t know that change is good," said Sarah Carpenter, a Memphis mother and grandmother who is serving on an advisory council to the achievement district. On visits to schools, she said, she saw students "engaged and learning."
"The expectations are higher and the kids are not used to that," Carpenter said. "But they can live up to these expectations."
Still, mindful of tensions, officials at other schools in the achievement district are diligently reaching out to parents and community leaders.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of achievement district staff members went door-to-door in neighborhoods where schools are entering the new district this fall. (Achievement district schools, including those run by charters, must accept any student who lives in their zones.)
"I would love to be your child’s principal," Debra Broughton, who will take over as principal at an elementary school in the Frayser community, told one mother.
That same morning, officials from Aspire, a California-based charter management group that will start operating Hanley Elementary School in the Orange Mound neighborhood this fall, held an open house to woo parents with massages and manicures.
Malia Oliver, a mother of a current kindergartner, was impressed. When Allison Leslie, executive director of Aspire’s Memphis operations, asked to sit in on a special-education consultation for Oliver’s autistic son, "that just meant so much to me," Oliver said.
Suspicion remains about what the takeover means for experienced teachers.
"A lot of our teachers are going to lose their jobs," said Charlie Moore III, pastor of the Life Changing Church of God in Christ in Orange Mound.
Although achievement district officials say they have encouraged current teachers to apply for jobs at the revamped schools, none are guaranteed a slot. Just five teachers and three administrators previously with the schools remain.
"We did not want to come into town and lose all the current educators and ship in a bunch of new teachers, " said Ash Solar, chief talent officer for the achievement district. "We want to show that if you build a new system where educators are supported, they can thrive."
Solar said the district had hired more than 50 teachers from other Memphis public schools. Those teachers are expected to help ease the transition.
On a recent afternoon, Deidra Holliday, a language arts teacher with 10 years of experience, was unfazed by the hints of chaotic home lives during a seventh-grade class at West Side Middle School.
"Tell me what your mama says at the house," said Holliday, inviting the students to write quotations on dry erase boards.
Echoing similar themes chosen by her classmates, one girl wrote: "‘Shut up,’ said my mom. ‘You need to go clean up the room and wash the disheess too."’
Holliday rolled with it. "We are going to start helping Mom more," she said, laughing. "So she can be more positive in her statements." She turned to a student and pointed out a missing comma.