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VOL. 40 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 15, 2016

Black Caucus demanding changes to Achievement School District

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – The Legislature’s Black Caucus – led by Memphis members – has its sights set squarely on the Achievement School District, either eliminating it or putting it on hold until major improvements are made.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson filed legislation today to abolish the state-run system at the end of the 2015-16 school year and require all schools in the bottom 2.5 percent of overall achievement on state standards in 2017-18 be governed under an Innovation Zone run by local school districts.

“We have real issue with the lack of accountability,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “You get these schools on the list and you continue to take in more schools, but you haven’t moved any schools off the list.”

The Black Caucus recently called for a moratorium on putting more schools under the authority of the Achievement School District, which began operating four years ago, either running schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance itself or allowing charter operators to oversee them.

Twenty-seven of the 29 schools under ASD are located in Memphis and two are in Nashville. The state district added four Memphis schools to the list in December, even after a Vanderbilt University study showed schools in Innovation Zones are performing better than those handled by the state district.

While Parkinson is taking on what he calls the “nuclear option” to eliminate the state district, with Republican Sen. Frank Nicely sponsoring the Senate version, other bills this session could restrict additions to the state district to provide more accountability.

Those being considered could put a three-year moratorium on the Achievement School District or require it to move 50 percent of its school off the Priority list before it takes on any more schools, according to Parkinson.

“It appears there is a crisis of confidence within the communities” about the Achievement School District, said state Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat, during a meeting of the Black Caucus with Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson.

Anderson defended her district, contending the Vanderbilt study said the Achievement School District needs more time, and possibly more funding, to show improvement.

Only six schools were eligible to come off the Priority list in 2014, those at the bottom 5 percent, and two of them may be able to make it after their fourth year, she told the caucus.

Although Towns said he wants to see improvements at individual schools in one year, Anderson said more time is needed to show a “trajectory” of improvement.

Individual attention, social services and emotional support are crucial parts of helping students improve academically, she said, noting, “They feel that sense of ‘I’m less than.’”

Anderson, who is in her second week as superintendent after four years with the district, told the caucus lack of teacher development and support hindered ASD in its early stage.

But she said programs such as Teacher Town are bolstering the program, and she predicted two Priority would rise to the state’s top 25 percent on performance in five years.

Despite being able to handle criticism from the caucus and answer their questions, Parkinson and Towns continue to take a hard line on the state district.

Parkinson said he has serious doubts about any of the ASD schools making the top 25 percent.

Said Towns, “We’re not gonna sleep on it. Because we’re team players, but if anything we’re advocates for the parents and the children. That does not change.”

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