The Shelby County School District includes the city of Memphis, which was found in 2013 to be home to 80% of the worst-ranked schools in Tennessee. A total of 69 “priority” schools ranking among the worst 5% in the state were all located in the district.
With financial help from a federal School Improvement Grant, however, the county was able to conceptualize and implement some big changes — both operational and academic — to improve student achievement.
In a way, the small network of Innovation Zone, or iZone, schools is a district within a district. They’re an alternative to the state's Achievement School District takeover schools, remaining locally-led. Both the iZone and ASD snagged federal Race to the Top grants in 2010 when Tennessee was awarded $500 million. The ASD’s goal was to bring the lowest-performing 5% of schools into the top 25% in five years.
But that didn’t happen.
“Superintendent Malika Anderson has acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and likely will not be met,” Chalkbeat TN recently reported, noting all but one of the six schools in the ASD’s first cohort remain ranked in the bottom 5%, in terms of performance.
The ASD has struggled to transform schools. Some have been taken over by charter organizations, while others have come under direct ASD operation, with spotty results. District-led turnarounds in nearby urban areas like Nashville and Chattanooga have reportedly outpaced the ASD’s. The takeover district now faces threats to its very existence, with state Democrats calling for the suspension of new school takeovers until results have been proven — a call that state leaders announced last week would indeed be answered.
Innovation Zone Success
Conversely, Shelby County's iZone schools have seen success.
Launched in 2012, they remain under the district's control, but they’re similar to charters, in that they’re able to choose their own staff independently, tweak curricula as needed and even make changes like lengthening the amount of time students receive daily classroom instruction. The iZone's students attend school for one hour more per day than their peers at regular public schools or those run by the ASD, and teachers are rewarded with financial incentives for student performance, earning achievement-based bonuses.
By December 2015, Shelby County announced plans to expand the iZone program, with Douglass, Mitchell and Westwood high schools slated to be folded into the network. The new additions bring the total number of “priority” schools within the iZone to a total of 21 for the 2016-17 school year.
Before that, ASD had been responsible for 27 schools, while the iZone operated 18. Seven iZone schools have been able to improve enough to make the leap off of the “priority” list. A reported 11 iZone schools increased student test scores by double-digits.
Superintendent Sharon Griffin, who was instrumental in the iZone's creation, was even named Tennessee supervisor of the year for 2015.
But in other counties, where separate district-led Innovation Zones exist, results haven’t been as promising. In Hamilton County, for example, progress has virtually stalled despite a reported $10.6 million in funding that was funneled to the district’s five worst-performing schools.
A recent report from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College noted the iZone schools had significantly outperformed ASD schools, recommending more state takeover schools be absorbed into the iZone. The study concluded students attending ASD schools hadn’t improved or declined, while their iZone peers had made substantial progress.
Dr. Ron Zimmer, a lead researcher on the report, calls the outcomes of iZone schools "promising," but warns local official and politicians to consider implementing programs with due diligence.
"Policymakers have to go into the idea of an iZone school with their eyes wide open," Zimmerman told Education Dive. "It’s not just, call them iZone and you'll find success. You have to look at what, in particular, the state of Tennessee did and what districts were able to do to lead to success. You have to consider the recruiting of high quality teachers, and the additional resouces. As a poliymaker, are you willing to commit those kinds of resources?"
Overall, he says, states should consider approaches like those taken by iZones, but they should be willing to understand and implement the actual practices that led to positive results.
Is there a future beyond federal funding?
Advancement comes at a cost. The Innovation Zone is expensive to maintain, and without federal backing, it might be impossible to sustain. Shelby County is already looking for additional revenue with which to continue the program, according to Chalkbeat.
The iZone schools have also received $1 million from the Assisi Foundation and $2.6 million from the Plough Foundation. In September, an anonymous group of funders operating under the auspices of a group called Teacher Town Memphis donated $10 million to support its expansion.
At the time of the grant, 10,000 students in Shelby County were part of the iZone. The grant money came with a hitch, too: Student participation has to increase by 1,000 annually through the 2017-18 school year.
But those grants, though substantial, still may not be enough. Currently, Shelby County Schools is considering $50 million in proposed budget cuts that would severely impact the iZone. And even if that large sum is accounted for, the district would still be reportedly $36 million in the red.
Specifically, the new proposal would eliminate the extra hour of instruction iZone schools have become known for in seven of its schools, in addition to slashing teaching jobs.
Despite the success of the iZone and the ASD's stagnant performance, other states have looked to the latter for inspiration. New Jersey, Louisiana and Nevada have also struggled with turning around low-performing schools. In New Orleans, there’s disagreement over whether the state-run system has improved New Orleans schools, which are now primarily charters. In Newark, NJ, return to local control is eminent after the state ran the district with little success for a total 20 years. Nevada’s Achievement School District is poised to start handing low-performing schools over to private charter operators, and has identified 78 schools that could qualify for takeovers.
But states considering takeovers should plan carefully, from a financial and operational standpoint. Recently, the American Institute for Research and the Institute of Education Sciences released a longitudinal study examining schools that had received federal School Improvement Grants. It concluded that although the grants did help recipient schools improve, improvement was fragile at best — and possibly unsustainable.
It’s also important for school systems considering state takeovers or innovative turnaround models to consider assessment. Tennessee’s new one-year moratorium on ASD growth speaks to the need for reflection and evaluation.
"As you expand, logistics become more challenging," Dr. Zimmerman said. "So it may not be a bad idea to pause for a second, and think about the support for existing schools before expanding to other schools."
With forethought, it’s possible to build assessment into turnaround initiatives so such pauses don’t turn into political minefields and are instead seamlessly built into district development.