When Outsiders Take Over Schools: Lessons From Memphis

Tennessee's new Achievement District gives control of some public schools over to charter networks, with mixed results.
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David Kohl/AP Photo

MEMPHIS — Depending on who you talk to, Memphis is rapidly becoming one of the best cities to teach in America—or one of the worst.

For Amanda Montgomery, a 24-year-old teacher, for instance, the takeover of her elementary school by Aspire Public Schools—the California-based charter network—has brought smaller class sizes and more-consistent mentoring. “I have a lot more coaching ... and supports,” she said.

But Sarah Kennedy-Harper, a veteran special-education teacher at Memphis’s Northside High School, aggressively opposed a similar takeover at Northside, knowing she could lose some job security. “I need to pay my bills,” Kennedy-Harper said. “I can’t afford to be at a school where they could hand us pink slips at any time and say, ‘We don’t need your services.’”

The city’s schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency.

At the heart of these changes is the state-run Achievement School District, created in 2010 with the intent of turning around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools. Some of the schools are run by state-appointed officials; others are turned over to charter operators. Of the 16 schools pulled into the Achievement District so far, 15 of them are in Memphis. A locally elected school board continues to run most of the city’s schools, and the city also has charter schools that are independent of the Achievement District.

The Memphis landscape epitomizes what a growing number of educators and public officials describe as portfolio management: when an array of operators—a traditional district, the state, charter operators, community groups—run some of a city’s schools instead of a single entity maintaining control. Schools’ very existence hinges on test-score gains. Those that underperform are, like weak stocks, transferred, repackaged, or dropped outright.

Supporters argue that the strategy saves children from attending chronically underperforming schools. Critics maintain it treats educators and students like widgets that can be reshuffled without regard to the human toll. Other cities pursuing comparable models include New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Tennessee’s Achievement District is modeled in part on Louisiana’s state-run Recovery School District, which absorbed most of New Orleans’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.

In Memphis, where state officials plan to increase the size of the Achievement District to about 22 schools by next fall—turning several of the schools over to charter operators—the response has been decidedly mixed.

When a charter group took control at Cornerstone Prep last fall, for instance, some parents and community leaders complained that school leaders and teachers lacked cultural sensitivity and instituted overly harsh rules. Other parents have come to appreciate Cornerstone’s hardworking teachers and intense focus on academics. “There are two teachers to a class,” said Sharanda Thomas, whose son is a fifth-grader at the school. “It’s more hands-on. I think it’s better all the way around.”

The Achievement District is still in its early stages, but the reception so far underscores a key challenge facing similar efforts across the country: Will communities embrace schools run by largely unknown and private organizations? How important is community acceptance? And, for that matter, who even constitutes the community?

Bringing Neighborhoods on Board

As the experience at Cornerstone illustrates, broad community support for schools matters to at least some degree—but parent and student support matters most.

Cornerstone had a rocky reception during the 2012-13 school year after allegations that some staff members, in their zeal for structure and discipline, prohibited students from using the bathroom and removed students’ shoes as a punishment.

Sara Lewis, who has served on the the newly merged Memphis and Shelby County School boards, joined leaders from the local chapter of the NAACP in complaining that the staff as a whole lacked knowledge of African-American culture and history. “Someone should have taught them African-American culture 101,” she said in a recent interview. (At Cornerstone, the student body is overwhelmingly African-American; school leaders say two-thirds of the staff members are white and one-third are members of racial minorities.)

Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the Achievement District, said that initially Cornerstone’s leaders were “so focused on getting the academic and school part right that they had blinders on to the fact that there was a whole community there that didn’t know who they were.”

LaTonya Hunt said her 10-year-old daughter was terrified to start at Cornerstone this school year because of all the community strife. “My baby was so nervous,” she said. “She kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go to Cornerstone. I don’t want to go to Cornerstone.’” Meanwhile, Hunt struggled to determine how much of the pushback came from parents with students at the school as opposed to neighborhood residents with little first-hand knowledge of what went on inside the walls. 

She decided to give Cornerstone a chance, telling the principal, “As soon as I notice her grades dropping or that something is not right, then I move her.”

Drew Sippel, Cornerstone’s executive director, said the school struggled to win buy-in from some students and parents during its first year at least partly because of the unusual way in which charters operate in the Achievement District. In many cities, parents select charters based on an interest in their educational approach or past results. But the charters that open in the Achievement District inherit the students from the neighborhood schools they replace.

Sippel and his colleagues have made changes to ingratiate themselves with parents and the broader community, including honoring residents’ attachment to the neighborhood school, Lester, that they displaced. School leaders changed Lester’s name to Cornerstone when they took over the elementary school in 2012, but when they absorb the middle school next year its name will remain Lester and the colors will also stay the same. The Achievement District as a whole has also created a volunteer advisory council partly in an effort to bolster its relationship with the communities it serves.

“It’s a long process to build relationships and trust,” said Sippel. He said the school has won over some parents but still has work to do with others. “Ask me in five years if we’re a trusted institution in the community.”

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Sarah Carr is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the book Hope Against Hope.

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