Special Report
School & District Management

Rival Strategies for Running Schools Put Memphis in Hot Seat

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 03, 2014 7 min read
Brian Taylor, front left, and Season Williams, right, both 3rd graders, line up at Memphis College Prep, a charter school in Memphis, Tenn. Memphis, like many other communities, is undergoing profound changes in the structure and administration of its schools. In addition to merging with the neighboring Shelby County school system, Memphis includes a mix of regular public schools, state-run schools, and charter schools.
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After decades of financial strife and low academic performance, this city’s struggling school system has become a laboratory for competing school governance and improvement strategies—and a management challenge of the first order.

Once a traditional district overseeing 205 schools, Memphis is now a patchwork of rival approaches, ranging from state-level intervention to market-driven school choice, all posing pointed challenges to coveted local control.

The state, under the authority of its Achievement School District created by the legislature in 2010, has taken over 15 low-performing schools in Memphis and plans eventually to operate more than 50, each of which will be run by a charter-management organization.

The former 104,000-student Memphis district, which served a high-poverty and predominantly African-American student body, merged last summer with the neighboring and more affluent Shelby County school system, to form a 140,000-student district. It goes under Shelby’s name, and is the nation’s 14th largest. But as of early December, six suburban municipalities were in the process of withdrawing from the merged district to form their own school districts as early as next school year, which would shrink enrollment.

What’s more, a booming charter school sector—more than 40 schools in the newly merged system—threatens to put financial and enrollment pressure on the combined district.

No ‘Ringmaster’

As the governance landscape grows more complex, there is no natural “ringmaster” of all the public schools in Shelby County and Memphis. District-authorized charter schools and the regular schools report to the district. The state directly oversees its own basket of 15 schools. Yet all the entities are enrolling students from the same areas and providing many services that overlap.

In order to manage the complexity, the district has created an office of innovation that serves as a liaison between the Shelby County schools, the state-run district, or ASD, and the charter schools.

Teacher Mary Godfrey leads 4th grader Maliyah Rogers, far right, and 5th grader Dynasti Gunn in making fruit smoothies in the Pathways Girl Scout program at Corning Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. The school is part of the state-run Achievement School District.

But the pace and scope of those changes—all within a span of the two most recent school years—raise issues of coordination, resources, and administrative capacity that resonate far beyond Memphis.

Supporters of the new arrangements are both excited and confident.

“This may sound like hyperbole, but I believe we have a once-in-three-generations opportunity—we have an unprecedented alignment of human-capital partners, a pipeline of talent, demonstrated high-performing school models, and a pipeline of new charter schools coming into the city,” said Barbara Hyde, president of the Hyde Family Foundations in Memphis, which funds some of the efforts.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Some in the community have protested the state’s takeover of schools in the city and are wary of the growing presence of charters.

“They’re privatizing our schools,” said Ellen Turner, the mother of an 8th grade student in a school that was slated to be taken over by the Achievement School District, but was later removed from the list. She said she was concerned that the teachers in her school would lose their jobs and be replaced by young, inexperienced teachers from programs like Teach For America.

Said Kevin G. Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has been critical of what he views as market-based school reforms, “Families in Memphis are dealing with issues like safe neighborhoods, health care. The sorts of changes being made in terms of ... who is running of schools, certainly doesn’t directly address them and probably won’t.”

When it comes to the state-run and charter schools, he said, “The question is, if you take away local democratic power, where does the power go?”

Even some of those in the Memphis system who say the changes are making a difference have qualms about sustainability.

Antonio Burt, a principal at Ford Road Elementary School, touts the successes of his school within the district’s 13-school “innovation zone,” which offers schools some charterlike autonomy. But he also said he has questions about coordination.

“Are we creating silos of excellence or a system of excellence?” Mr. Burt asked.

Behind the Changes

Director of Student Supports Kaleigh Donnelly, left, greets Brianna Thompson, 5, a kindergartner at Memphis College Prep. Students in the charter school are required to look instructors in the eye and pass a visual inspection before entering each day.

Historically, Memphis has experienced significant academic underperformance, said Timothy Ware, the executive director of the Memphis branch of New Leaders, a nonprofit leadership development group, which trains principals in the city.

For example, just 29 percent of Memphis’s elementary school students scored proficient in reading on state standardized tests in 2012, and just 27 percent were proficient in math. The 2012-13 graduation rate was 67.2 percent. Of the 85 schools in Tennessee in the bottom 5 percent according to state test scores, 69 were in Memphis. Some 85 percent of students in the district are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals.

The district also is coping with with the legacy of a 1973 court desegregation order. Many white families left the city’s schools for the suburbs or for private schools in subsequent decades.

Funding problems have also dogged the Memphis school system—it sued the city government in 2011 when the municipality failed to ante up the $55 million owed the schools.

“The challenge here is we’re not getting fully funded from the state level, nor from the local level,” said Kenya Bradshaw, a former executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children in Memphis, who served on the transition planning committee for the merger. “Then we got significant cuts from the federal government, partly due to sequestration.”

All those factors, to some degree, led to the cascade of administrative and governance changes that have remade the Memphis schools’ landscape in a compressed period of time.

Jerome Brewer, center, a 2nd grader at Memphis College Prep, sits while his classmates participate in a physical education class.

Host of Challenges

Those changes bring logistical, management—and political—challenges of their own.

The merger with Shelby County, for example, is proving to be temporary, as many of the suburban towns in the county are forming their own municipal school districts in order to secede from the combined system—something that could come as early as 2014-15.

The Shelby County commission and Memphis city council filed a lawsuit against the suburban districts alleging that the new districts were an attempt to resegregate the county’s schools and violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The suburbs denied that race played a role, saying they preferred a system with more local control.

But the merger focused renewed attention on the structure and role of the central office and the future of charter schools that will have lasting implications.

Danyelle Petty, 9, works on homework as her brother Kaylon Smith, 19, watches television at their Memphis home. Danyelle is a 4th grader at Ford Road Elementary School in Memphis, part of a 13-school “innovation zone” offering some charter-like autonomy.

“This was an opportunity to re-examine and reimagine the district bureaucracy, while preserving the things that were good for classrooms,” said Terence Patterson, the program director for education at the Hyde Family Foundations.

The merged district privatized its maintenance, for instance. Some 300 staff members were laid off, about four-fifths of them from the former Memphis district’s schools. And it is now run by a seven-member combined school board, under a single superintendent, Dorsey E. Hopson II.

“The merger ... forced some people to be part of the conversation around education planning who’d never worked together,” said Tomeka Hart, a former member of the school board.

On the Spot

For his part, Superintendent Hopson must coordinate among a number of entities within the merged district, including the charter school operators and the ASD, which is headed by Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep, a Houston-based charter-management organization.

“It starts with collaboration between myself and Chris,” said Mr. Hopson.

And with many players, there are many complexities to be worked out.

“With the charter laws—all of this is so new,” said Mr. Hopson. “Oftentimes, the details don’t go with the big laws they pass, and then the local districts are left to figure those details out.”

He is optimistic that initiatives now underway can be sustained amid a still-tenuous budget environment.

Memphis, seen at sunset, is proving to be a test bed for school governance strategies.

“We were given some [federal] School Improvement Grants to help supplement some of the exciting things we were doing … so we have to see how we can replicate that success and institute those practices knowing that the resources aren’t going to be there,” said Mr. Hopson.

It’s a daunting task.

“It’d be great if that kind of example of a model that has lots of different operators serving a common community could emerge out of this, but that requires a lot of trust across operations,” said Daniel Kiel, a law professor at the University of Memphis. “No one is fully in charge—everyone’s in charge of their own fiefdom.”

Sara Lewis, who served on the transition planning committee and grew up in Memphis when it was, as she put it, “a strictly segregated city,” said, “I see a city in transition; I see a merger between school systems trying to figure out how we provide high-quality education to all our children irrespective of socioeconomics; I don’t see coherency.”

While it remains to be seen how all those changes will coalesce, some remain optimistic.

“What we had before was the one-size-fits-all system of district,” said Mr. Patterson of the Hyde Family Foundations. “We took a shift from thinking about the district as a school system to thinking of it as a system of schools.”

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