Tennessee’s new Achievement School District kicked off the year with a party. In the parking lot beside Frayser Elementary School, kids danced, slid on slides, and bounced in inflated houses. There was even a rock-climbing wall and laser-tag.
But there is serious work ahead.
The ambitious goal of the Achievement School District is to take schools that are among the bottom five percent in the state and move them to the top 25 percent—all in the next five years.
“I think a lot of times when, you know, these lists of schools get created, the goal becomes to get off the list, and getting off the list and having a great school does not necessarily mean the same thing,” said superintendent Chris Barbic. “And what we really want to do is make sure that these are great schools.”
Barbic used to head the successful YES Prep Public Schools, a group of charter schools in Houston. He moved to Nashville to oversee Tennessee’s lowest performing schools.
There are 85 schools in that bottom five percent and 69 of them are in Memphis. The state could have intervened at any—or all. Instead, it chose six. Three the state handed over to charters to run. But state employees will roll-up their sleeves and run the other three themselves. Those schools are Frayser Elementary, Corning Elementary, and Westside Middle School. All three are in the North Memphis neighborhood of Frayser.
This marks the first time Tennessee has stepped in and taken over every aspect of a school’s day-to-day operations.
In a radical first step—teachers who wanted to stay in these particular schools had to reapply. As a result, there will be many new faces in the classroom this year.
“I honestly, I think everything is changing, except the building and the children,” said Robin Waters an incoming first grade teacher at Corning, and one of those new faces.
A more than 15 year veteran, Waters has taught in Virginia and at Egypt Elementary School, a Memphis City School not far away. As part of the Achievement School District, Waters’ day will be an hour and a half longer, and she’ll teach some Saturday classes. Still, she was eager to sign up—attracted by the state’s ambitious goals, willingness to shake things up, and work ethic.
“When I got the application, the first question on it was, ‘Why do you want to work for the ASD [Achievement School District]?’” Waters said, “And I just wanted to write—‘You’re the people I’ve been looking for my entire career. Can we move onto the next question?’”
Barbic says it’s teachers like Waters who are going to turn these schools around. Tennessee is using federal “Race to the Top” money to get these schools off the ground. But within five years Barbic says he’ll be running better schools without spending anymore than Memphis currently spends per-pupil.
“We’re choosing to reallocate the dollars differently,” Barbic said. “We’re, you know, focusing on people and we’re investing in our people, and not in things and programs.”
The state hopes that if it can improve these three schools, then that will also improve the Frayser high schools they feed into, because not as many students will start ninth grade behind. And that will have a positive impact on the rest of Frayser, too. The once middle-class area is now riddled with foreclosures, blight and crime.
Tarsha Macklin lives in Frayser. Macklin came to the party to grab some registration information for her daughter who is starting at Westside Middle School, but she stuck around to chat with a neighbor.
Macklin had never been to a party put on by a school system before, and as the music thunked, she found herself looking forward to the school year.
“This gives us hope, you know, for our community, for our children to get a better education, because we need this in our community. We really do,” Macklin said.