At Corning Elementary in Frayser, a group of kindergarteners gathered around their teacher Erica Allen. As they all clapped in rhythm, Allen asked her young students to read the word on a card she was holding. They chanted, “Can! Can! Can!”
The kindergarteners don’t remember this, but last year Corning was run by Memphis City Schools, and the school’s average score on the state’s TCAP exam was an F.
This year, the state is running Corning as well as Frayser Elementary and Westside Middle School. These schools are among six that make up Tennessee’s Achievement School District (the state has turned the other three schools in the new district over to charter operators). The goal of the district is an ambitious one: take schools that are among the bottom five percent in the state and move them to the top 25 percent in the next five years.
Teachers had to reapply if they wanted to keep working in these schools and as a result, the state-run district hired a lot of new faces. The district also extended the school day by an hour and a half and started holding some Saturday classes.
“Eyes on me,” Allen told her kindergarteners, and then she divided the class into groups. Allen began working with one group and Corning's Spanish teacher entered the room and began reading with another.
“One of the programs we’re doing is a reading mastery program,” said Corning Principal Jessica Jackson, “our support teachers push in to our kindergarten and first grade classrooms and work with groups of children.”
In addition to the Spanish teacher, Corning’s art teacher and science teacher pull double-duty and work as reading instructors in the morning. At times, these intensive reading lessons spill out into the hallway and even the stairwell.
Fifth grade math teacher at Corning Katrina Armor said she believes her co-workers in the Achievement School District are some of the best instructors in the city, but “there’s no magic bullet,” she says “there is no silver lining. It is hard work. It’s sweat. You have to leave tired at the end of the day.”
Armor uses regular assessments to monitor student progress and pinpoint the areas she needs to beef up. She said most of her students started the year two or three grade levels behind. Armor believes she can catch them up, but she says it's hard work for her students, too, “they have to leave tired at the end of the day.”
At Westside Middle School, another state-run school, eighth-grader Diamond Ross said her new teachers are tough. “Last year it was fun, but we weren’t learning like we’re learning this year and we were easily distracted,” Ross said. “Now this school year like when we’re in the classroom, you can’t get distracted.”
Westside’s Principal Dirk Bedford agrees his teachers are exacting, “Our teachers are ones that we have hired specifically for this mission who have, in many cases, left positions where they were successful, comfortable … and tenured.”
Bedford, like the teachers at his school, joined the state-run district because he wanted to prove that failing schools can be turned around quickly. If they’re able to bring up test scores, then educators around the country will sit up and take notice. Even so, Bedford admits the district isn’t there yet, “We haven’t proven anything. We’ve got wildly high ambitions for our schools and for our kids, and we are going to work a whole day everyday to reach those goals, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Proven or no, the district is expanding. Next year the state will be in charge of 10 more schools in Memphis. It will announce which ones December 17.