The TN ASD: In search of a friend

Need-To-Make-MoneyA number of months ago I poised the tongue-in-cheek  question, “Who actually likes the Tennessee Achievement School District”? Little did I know how much truth was in that question. It is certainly not the people of Memphis or Nashville, who have loudly rejected the ASD take overs of their schools. You can’t count the three charter operators, Frayser Community Schools, Green Dot, and KIPP, who recently changed their planned level of participation in the ASD. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office can’t be too enamored, as their audit revealed multiple instances of financial mismanagement. Apparently there are not too many friends at the State House either, as 22 bills were introduced this session to either limit or do away with the ASD.  Now, the latest tree has fallen: YES Prep decided to pull out of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

This is a huge deal because YES Prep is a charter organization that Tennessee Achievement School District head Chris Barbic helped found in 1998. They’ve been very successful in Houston and agreed to open two schools in Memphis in August. You can’t help but think their relationship with Barbic helped facilitate this move. However, now that they’ve gotten a little bit more of the lay of the land, they are having second thoughts about the move. Chris Barbic might have thought that the Memphis parent protests were no big deal, but apparently, along with a changing financial picture, made YES Prep a bit uneasy, as they’ve decided to pack up and move back to Texas. This is akin to a son telling his father he doesn’t want to go into the family business. It’s got to sting.

Part of the hang-up was over a proposed turnaround strategy called a phase-in plan. With a phase-in plan, a charter takes over one grade at a time per year until eventually they take over the whole school. This is strategy that charter operators might find beneficial, but I doubt those outside the grade being taken over feel the same way. These students, the ones not being “taken over”, are left in limbo as the district knows that the school will soon be the charter’s responsibility, and therefore there is not a lot of incentive to invest in the school and its remaining students. Memphis was not a fan of the phase-in strategies. Parents and administrators had grown weary of students attending a school where some students were granted more resources than others due to the charter status. In response to parental concern’s, Memphis created a policy that would force YES Prep to send students in the non-targeted grades to other campuses. This caused further resistance from a community that was already wary.

In discussing these models, we must never lose sight of the fact that these “low-performing schools” are also largely high poverty schools. This disruption can create challenges that parents are ill prepared for. Imagine if you were told that not only is your child’s school being taken over by the state, but since your child is in a non-targeted grade, he’ll be attending another campus that might not be very convenient for you and furthermore, may create a financial burden. Charter schools like to compare themselves to rescue boats for the Titanic. Well, this is an example of them deciding who gets the rescue boat and who gets the anchor.

YES Prep’s Memphis director Bill Durbin stated, “For the last year, we’ve had a team on the ground doing all that due diligence to be prepared to run schools this fall. In doing all that due diligence we obviously came to the realization that a bunch of factors have changed in the past few years that don’t lead us to believe we can deliver on the promise that we made when we were approved two years ago”. Chris Barbic’s response: “Not everyone is cut out for this work.”

Meanwhile, families in a Memphis neighborhood are left scratching their head and wondering where their children will be attending school next year. This is a serious problem. One that could have been avoided, but is indicative of an issue with the whole charter movement. Charter schools are accountable to their board of directors, but not the community or anyone else.

Reformers like to lament how hard it is to close a failing school, but in my eyes not being able to whimsically close a school is a good thing. Schools are meant to be more than just places for students to learn to read and add. They are meant to be cornerstones of communities that reflect the values of those communities and serve as a source of stability. Take for example Glencliff High School here in Nashville. Glencliff High School will most likely still be here, barring catastrophe, when my children are ready to attend. I know alumni and current students from Glencliff. They make up my community and we have a shared social currency. Glencliff as a public school helps preserve this social currency. It is a source of stability in a neighborhood that has seen many fluctuations. But the charter movement does not offer the same steadying influence.

Charter schools are not government entities; they are private. Therefore they are governed by private interests. If the job gets too difficult, they can close. If the profit margin gets too small, they can close. If they don’t like the model that the local school district proposes, they can close. There is nothing that guarantees that the school that’s educating your oldest child will be the one educating your youngest, or even that the one responsible for your oldest child’s education will be the one responsible next year.

Most parents would find this problematic, but not Chris Barbic. He’s more concerned about growth. In his eyes the ASD needs to have the ability to go out and recruit more kids. Apparently he doesn’t see how this would create more instability. When he pulls kids out of their local district, that means less money for the local district. Less money means more potentially failing schools, which translates into more schools to be potentially handed over to charter operators. Schools that may or may not be open on that first day of school in August. Barbic is so committed to this vision that he’s willing to support attaching a bill to allow expanded enrollment for the ASD to a completely unrelated bill, a bill with universal support that would give cover to the ASD, which does not enjoy universal support. With shenanigan’s like this, you can’t help but wonder how much of this is all about the money, especially now that the Race To The Top money has dried up.

The Achievement School District was created out of the Race To The Top application. Its creators saw it as a means for the State, who had more resources available, to provide assistance to schools, that had challenges local districts weren’t equipped to handle. Charter schools were intended to be just one tool in a box that the State had access to. Someone, though, took it upon themselves to turn the ASD into a de facto charter authorizer. Since it’s inception, when the ASD took over the three campuses of Frayser, every takeover has been a charter conversion.

An interesting fact about the Frayser schools – they’re losing their leader Ash Solar. Barbic’s comments on his leaving are “I think it’s one thing to come and do the one- to two-year sprint as fast as you can,” he said. “But if we’re going to sustain this work, we’ve got to make sure we are finding people that can sustain an effort over time.” Guess Solar is not cut out for this work either. Even though he was a member of the Broad Residency Class of 2009-2011. You start to wonder who Chris thinks is qualified to do this work. If you looked at test scores you might even begin to question if the ASD is qualified to do this work.

From the beginning the ASD proposed to grow the bottom 5% to the top 25%. After three years, they’ve fallen considerably short of that goal and to reach it, would have to produce double digit gains each of the remaining years. Interesting enough, the I-Zone schools, which have been referred to as the local district’s achievement district, have proven more successful in producing gains with a whole lot less disruption to the community. Change is hard and rarely comfortable, but discomfort just for discomfort sake is not reform. Results have to be evident and to this point, the ASD has just not shown results that warrant the disruption they’ve caused.

I don’t know how many more signs are needed to show that this Achievement School District thing in Tennessee is fraying at the edges. Individually, any one of the series of failures that have beset the ASD this year would be cause for pause, but when taken together, it’s a damning indictment. To be honest, it seems to me that the ASD and it’s cohorts show more in common with war profiteers than educators.

At the very least the state of Tennessee Legislators need to put the brakes on any expansion of the Achievement School District. Let Mr. Barbic prove that he can still recruit quality charter operators. Because right now the quality ones are either leaving or scaling back their plans. We need to demand that Mr. Barbic prove that he can make academic gains with the students he’s charged with before granting him access to others. The ASD needs to prove that they are good stewards of tax payer money.

The Achievement School District may be prove to be a useful tool in the future, but with it’s current leadership, and mission statement, that is highly questionable. If it continues to be plagued with defections, scale backs, lack luster growth, community anger, and financial mismanagement, other solutions will need to be considered. There can be no success without stakeholder buy-in and right now, it is unclear who, if anybody, likes the ASD. Legislators owe it to Tennessee tax payers to hold the ASD to the same level of accountability required of students, teachers, administrators and schools. Anything less is just not acceptable.






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1 reply

  1. I am a taxpayer, a teacher, and a grandparent of students in MNPS. I hope that citizens and our legislators please, please, please support real public schools- not charters. Charter schools are not better than public schools, and they are more segregated. Real public schools that accept every child need support. Support means more wrap-around services (counseling, pre-school, nurses) and smaller classes.

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