|Memphis joins Birmingham as having its almost entirely black (and black-run) city school system taken over by the state|
MEMPHIS — Not far off a scruffy boulevard lined with dollar stores and payday loan shops in a neighborhood of run-down brick bungalows, Corning Achievement Elementary School here is a pristine refuge, with gleaming tile floors and signs in classrooms proclaiming “Whatever it takes.”
In this Mississippi River town marked by pockets of entrenched poverty, some of the worst schools in the state are in the midst of a radical experiment in reinventing public education.
Last fall, Tennessee began removing schools with the lowest student test scores and graduation rates from the oversight of local school boards and pooling them in a special state-run district. Memphis, where the vast majority of public school students are black and from poor families, is ground zero: 80 percent of the bottom-ranked schools in the state are here.
Tennessee’s Achievement School District, founded as part of the state’s effort to qualify for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant, is one of a small handful of state-run districts intended to rejuvenate chronically struggling schools. Louisiana’s Recovery School District, created in 2003, is the best-known forerunner, and this year Michigan also set up a state district for failing schools. In February, Virginia legislators passed a measure to set up a similar statewide district.
The achievement district is a veritable petri dish of practices favored by data-driven reformers across the country and fiercely criticized by teachers’ unions and some parent groups.
Most of the schools will be run by charter operators. All will emphasize frequent testing and data analysis. Many are instituting performance pay for teachers and longer school days, and about a fifth of the new district’s recruits come from Teach for America, a program in which high-achieving college graduates work in low-income neighborhood schools. And the achievement district will not offer teachers tenure.
While some parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders hail signs of progress in the seven months the achievement district has been in existence, others have complained about a lack of racial sensitivity and have accused the new district of sidelining experienced teachers, many of whom are black. About 97 percent of the students in the achievement district schools are black, compared with fewer than half the teachers.
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“We’re not just asking people to do something incrementally different in a system that is fundamentally broken and the same,” said Chris Barbic, the achievement district’s superintendent and a Teach for America alumnus who went on to found the Yes Prep chain of 11 charter schools in Houston.