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Changing a Culture Inside and Out of School

Fixing a failing school may require a complete change in culture. That’s not an easy thing to achieve, but Memphis is trying.

Students in the Memphis neighborhood of Frayser walk to class.
Students in the Memphis neighborhood of Frayser walk to class.
Brandon Dill
Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, Governing has tracked efforts to turn around one Memphis, Tenn., high school. This is the second installment in a four-part series; the other parts can be found at

It was late August -- the 11th day of school -- and Bobby White was walking the hallways of the high school he oversees in the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, one of the poorest communities in the state of Tennessee. As White made his way through the halls, he pointed out something that was missing: noise. Nearly 600 students were enrolled in the school. In years past, fights had been near-daily occurrences. But today, just two weeks into the new year, the school was completely quiet. White, the founder and executive director of Frayser Community Schools, the charter school operator entrusted by the state to run this facility, saw this as a sign that his school was finally settling into a good rhythm. The vast majority of students were arriving on time, properly attired. Kids were moving well between classes. 

The orderly atmosphere was a triumph. It had been just eight weeks since White, Principal Kimberly Hopkins-Clark and their team had first entered Frayser High School as its new operators. Weeks of cleaning and coats of fresh paint had brightened its appearance. A name change to MLK College Preparatory School seemed to be winning student and neighborhood acceptance. The decision to divide the high school into an upper and lower academy was working well too, with the lower academy -- ninth and 10th graders -- starting their day with morning meetings in the auditorium and the upper academy convening in the basement cafeteria.  

White was pleased. Things were going well. But he knew these achievements were only a small first step in changing the school’s culture.

Culture change is hard -- so hard that most charter school operators don’t even attempt it. Instead, they start afresh, setting up an entirely new school, typically beginning with a single grade, and then adding grade levels as their students grow older. Bobby White wasn’t interested in running that kind of charter school. At the new MLK College Prep, any child zoned from the neighbohood could attend.

Breaking old habits was a top priority for creating change. White and his team had been attempting to do this in numerous ways. Morning meetings weren’t just for announcements anymore; they were occasions for uplift and inspiration. Behavior was governed by clear rules of conduct: Even the proper way to walk in the hallways was specified -- on the right, like cars drive. The lower and upper academies competed to see who could go the longest without an altercation; the winning students could receive an award, such as a relaxed dress code for a day.

At first, students -- and even some parents -- complained that the new approach was too structured, that the rules were too stiff. But most bought in quickly. White, Hopkins-Clark, and the other teachers and staff built relationships fast. “They saw that we would not waver in our beliefs or expectations,” says White. “They also saw that we cared.”

As the third week of school got under way, White felt good about what was (and was not) happening in the halls. But he also realized that the real work of culture change wouldn’t happen in the halls. It would happen in the classroom. “The school is running effectively,” said White, as he walked the upper academy halls. “When you come in the morning at 7 o’clock, you know what to expect. Now, we can get into our classrooms more consistently with our professional development” plans for teachers. “We know the challenges that some teachers have.”

Most of the teachers at MLK College Prep are new. When Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) takes over a school, as it has in this case, existing teachers must reapply to keep their jobs. Doing so means giving up seniority and working longer hours for comparable pay. As a result, few teachers stay. That was certainly true when Frayser High became MLK College Prep. Only 10 teachers reapplied for jobs; five of them were hired. Many of the new teachers who were brought on board were relatively new educators.

White and Hopkins-Clark did their best to assemble the most effective team of teachers they could find. Research suggests that teacher quality is the single most important determinant of student achievement. Having effective teachers was particularly important for MLK College Prep. Most of its students had at least one subject where they were a grade level behind; many had several. White and Hopkins-Clark also took care to build a cadre of teachers that looked like the students they were serving. Other charter schools in Memphis had gotten into trouble with their communities by replacing older African-American teachers with younger white teachers. In contrast, the teaching core at MLK College Prep, which is located in an almost entirely black neighborhood, is 60 percent African-American. 

Still, there’s no denying that MLK College Prep is fielding a rookie team -- of the 27 teachers who do have experience, only a handful have been teaching for more than seven years. In order to meet the goal of moving into the top 25 percent of schools statewide, MLK College Prep needs to attain double-digit gains in math and English every year. Achieving that goal will require excellent instructors. But White is optimistic. As a former football player and coach, he likes to say, “I would rather have someone who was coachable than someone who was great.” 

Brandon Dill

Principal Kimberly Hopkins-Clark is devoting much of her time to helping the teaching staff, many of whom are new to the profession. (Brandon Dill)

In September, a team of six reviewers from the state ASD visited MLK College Prep to assess how the school was performing. Over the course of the day, the team interviewed faculty, staff, students and parents. It also observed classes and reviewed documentation. At the end of the process, it shared its findings with White and Hopkins-Clark. According to White, the report found that parents were pleased with the new management of the school. But the assessment team did not see a consistent level of rigor and engagement in every classroom. Translation: Some teachers needed additional support. 

White and Hopkins-Clark weren’t surprised. They’d already been thinking about how to provide greater support to the teachers who needed it. As principal, Hopkins-Clark has taken the lead effort in shaping the school’s response, devoting most of her Mondays and Wednesdays to observing teaching in the classroom. Tuesdays and Thursdays are used for individual coaching; Friday afternoon, for group strategizing and problem solving. The next growth assessment, for the ninth grade, is scheduled for later this month. Not until the end of the school year will formal state assessments tied to accountability take place. “We are looking for double-digit growth,” as measured by state end-of-course testing, says Hopkins-Clark. “For us, that would be a home run.”

What is unfolding in Frayser isn’t an isolated turnaround effort. It is part of Tennessee’s statewide education reform program, which is one of the most ambitious education overhaul efforts in the country. In its first three years of operations, the Achievement School District has taken over 22 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville. Now it’s poised to take over even more. In early August, the Tennessee Department of Education crunched test score results from the state’s 1,700 public schools to identify the lowest 5 percent of performers. It identified 79 schools as candidates for takeover. (Eight of the schools on the list are already run by the ASD.) State officials now faced a tough choice: Which of these schools did they want to take on?

Takeovers can happen in one of two ways. The ASD can come in and run a school directly, or it can bring in a charter operator.  (The state can also opt to do nothing and let the local school district continue to operate the school.) Of the 23 schools taken over so far, five are being run directly by the ASD. The rest, including MLK Prep, are charters. And any new ones added to the ASD roster will likely also be charters, according to Chris Barbic, the ASD superintendent and point person of Tennessee’s turnaround effort. Barbic says he’s confident in the performance of the direct-run schools, but he believes the best way to make a school autonomous and accountable is by authorizing it to run as a charter.

For charter operators, taking over an ASD priority school offers a compelling deal. Instead of having to find a building and raise money for their program, charter operators who take over can in effect get an entire school for free. 

There’s a hitch, though, and it’s what makes Tennessee’s turnaround effort so important for other troubled school systems around the country to watch. In exchange for the free school and support from the state, ASD charters must agree to operate as neighborhood schools open to all, just as Frayser’s MLK Prep does. That universal access is what sets Tennessee’s experiment apart. For years, critics of charters have claimed that the strong results at certain schools reflect selection bias. That is, the students they attract are more motivated and/or less needy than students in otherwise comparable schools. Barbic doesn’t believe that. He thinks charters will be able to outperform traditional district schools because they won’t have to operate within large bureaucracies. “That’s the bet at least,” Barbic says. “That’s the hypothesis.” 

Elsewhere in Memphis, though, there’s another big experiment in school reform taking place. The schools involved in it aren’t charters, and they aren’t being run by the state. Rather, they are operated by Shelby County Schools. They’re called innovation zones, or simply iZone schools. And so far, they collectively represent the most successful turnaround schools in Memphis.

When the Tennessee Department of Education was setting up the ASD, it knew that the new state school district wouldn’t have the capacity to serve every priority school. So it created a process by which any school district with priority schools could set up so-called innovation zones. Schools in these innovation zones would be able to extend the school day or provide additional resources by applying to the state for access to federal school improvement grants. 

Shelby County, which runs the public schools in Memphis, decided to create a system of iZone schools that would incorporate many of the best features of education reform: longer schools days, autonomy for school leaders and the ability for principals to hire their own teaching staff. Exactly how Shelby County Schools would develop and run those schools fell largely to one person, Sharon Griffin. 

Brandon Dill

Once a science teacher at Frayser High School, Sharon Griffin is now the regional superintendent for innovation zone schools. (Brandon Dill)

Griffin is an unmissable presence -- tall, stylish and determined. She began her career as a science teacher in the early 1990s at, of all places, Frayser High School before moving on to an assistant principal position. Today she is the regional superintendent for innovation zone schools. Her boss, Chief Innovation Officer Brad Leon, describes her as someone “extraordinarily committed to constant improvement.” 

Once Shelby County received authorization from the state to create iZone schools, Griffin and her team of content advisers set out to identify which schools would make the best candidates. They focused on the neediest priority elementary and middle schools, especially those that fed into middle or high schools that could best support those students’ continued growth. The county converted seven schools in year one; another six schools were added in year two. Another four schools were added at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, bringing Shelby’s total number of iZone schools to 17. 

As with the ASD schools, iZone principals are entrusted with the authority to hire their teaching staff. But there are also differences. The ASD tends to push autonomy and responsibility down to the operator level. The iZone schools are much more focused on providing ongoing teacher support. “The way I think about it is that empowerment means empowering people to also do their job more effectively,” says Leon. “It’s not just the hiring decisions, it’s not just strategic decisions. It’s also, ‘Here’s what we think excellence looks like, let us get there.’”

Brandon Dill

Shelby County Schools’ chief innovation officer Brad Leon: “Here’s what we think excellence looks like, let us get there.” (Brandon Dill)

In practice, that’s meant hands-on coaching, and lots of it. Under Griffin’s watch, the iZone has sought to provide its teachers with content coaches and other opportunities to learn and improve. Teachers, says Griffin, have responded. Many of the iZone teachers were hired away from ASD schools and charters. “They have a comparison,” Griffin says, “and they say, ‘I didn’t have the support in those other schools. That support has made all the difference.’” 

Shelby County Schools did something else remarkable. It moved some of the district’s best teachers into the iZone schools. That’s extremely rare. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to Memphis in September to highlight the effort and urge school districts nationwide to do the same thing.

The final ingredient in the iZone recipe is that teachers are also expected to work harder. Innovation schools meet for an additional hour every day, a cost the district has covered with federal funds. That alone has been equivalent to adding 23 days to the school year. 

Effective leadership, autonomy, good teachers and longer school days: The iZone schools have made all of the moves that education reformers like to see schools make. They also added a new component to the mix: content-coaching and constant support. And they’ve done all that within the context of traditional public schools. 

Since the first group of iZone schools opened, the results have been strikingly successful. Every one of the iZone schools has made significant gains. Four of the seven elementary schools and five of the seven middle schools are on track to move into the top quarter of schools statewide within five years. As a whole, the iZone has seen test-score gains of 10 points a year. Test gains among ASD schools have, on average, been much smaller.

But Barbic and the ASD don’t see iZones as competitors. Far from being upset by the progress those schools have made, Barbic was excited to incorporate their strategies into the state’s turnaround efforts. In fact, he reached out to Shelby County Schools and worked with them to help identify the next set of schools the state would take over. Barbic was even open to the idea of converting those schools to iZones.

That’s when things hit a snag. As talks between the state and county continued, it became clear that Shelby County Schools faced serious constraints. The iZone schools’ success had come at a price. While iZone students showed big gains in test scores, the schools that iZone principals and teachers had left behind showed declines. The benefits of good leadership and good teaching had seemingly just been redistributed from one group of schools to another. Shelby County Schools had to find a way to bring skillful administrators and teachers into the system from outside. Until it did, expansion of the iZone program was on hold.

There were other problems, too. One was cost: iZone schools are more expensive to run than traditional public schools, because teachers are compensated for the longer hours they’re required to work. That additional cost had been covered by federal school improvement grants, but those dollars will run out at the end of this school year. Shelby County wants to expand the iZone program, but it’s first going to have to figure out how.

Meanwhile the state was eager to move ahead this past fall. Barbic was ready to announce the next group of schools the state would be taking over. Since he had ruled out having any more schools run directly by the ASD, and since Shelby wasn’t ready to move forward on expanding its iZone schools, that meant one thing: charters.

Barbic set up meetings for mid-October, to begin matching priority schools in need with the charters that would run them. The meetings would include the state, the charter operators and the communities they would operate in -- and Barbic knew it was going to be tough. Despite years of abysmal test scores, neighborhood residents were always shocked to find out their schools were seen as failing. (“Failing schools” is a phrase never used by the ASD but widely used by everyone else.) In previous years, Barbic and his staff had been greeted with a mixture of surprise, anger, confusion and dismay. Barbic understood why. The idea of a charter school as the neighborhood school was novel, and somewhat confusing. Enrolling children in a charter school is typically something parents choose whether to do. Under the ASD, though, charter school operators were taking over existing neighborhood schools -- schools where parents often had deep connections -- and replacing the teachers with whom parents had developed relationships.

To make matters worse, it’s not always clear how much communities are actually able to participate in the takeover process. They don’t always have a say. Whenever possible, the ASD tries to  convene a group of charter operators and neighborhood schools and then conduct a two-month matching period so they can get to know each other -- a bit like speed-dating. Then a neighborhood advisory council can recommend what it thinks the match should be, the charter operator agrees, and everybody’s happy. 

Brandon Dill

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic wants to bring together charter operators and neighborhood groups. (Brandon Dill)

But it doesn’t always work like that. If there’s only one charter that’s willing to take over a particular school, then the ASD will simply announce it, without input from the community. “It does give the appearance of jamming a decision down people’s throats,” Barbic acknowledges, but “we look at it as being honest.”

To at least some of the residents in affected neighborhoods, the state’s promises of public input and the encouragement to get involved were nothing more than window dressing. In those critics’ eyes, this was just another way for white people to earn six-figure salaries by privatizing and dismantling one of the few things these neighborhoods had left, their neighborhood schools.

Barbic, of course, was well aware of these beliefs. He spent vast amounts of time attempting to allay these concerns. Every week, he made the three-hour drive to Memphis, leaving his wife and kids behind in Nashville. Days were spent working out of a modest, donated office downtown or in a small cluster of double-wide trailers in Frayser. Evenings were spent speaking and listening to concerns at community meetings or breaking bread with community leaders. His workday often began at 5 in the morning and lasted until 10 p.m., when Barbic and other ASD staff retired to a modest guest house rented by the state to save on hotel costs. By statute, Barbic had the powers of an autocrat. But the way he conducted himself in Memphis was anything but high-handed.

In September, Barbic was busy preparing for the mid-October takeover meetings. Fate intervened. On Thursday, Sept. 18, Barbic woke up at his home in Nashville feeling ill. He shrugged it off and drove to Memphis, returning home that night. The next morning, he felt even worse, but he went to work anyway at the Department of Education in downtown Nashville. By mid-afternoon, experiencing worsening chest pains, he checked himself into a hospital. Chris Barbic was having a heart attack. The cardiac team at St. Thomas Hospital rushed him into the operating room for immediate surgery.

Barbic is 44. He exercises regularly; he has no family history of heart disease. In the eyes of many in the education reform movement, this was a heart attack caused by the stress of the job. 

The operation was successful, and by the end of the following week, Barbic was back on his feet. Three weeks later, he was back on the job. But his recovery meant he couldn’t go to Memphis to participate in the mid-October round of school takeover announcements. 

Here’s what the state planned to do. First, ASD staff would convene with teachers in the schools that were being taken over. Because those teachers’ jobs were potentially at risk, the state wanted them to hear the news first. The following week, the ASD and charter operators would meet with the parents and community members in the areas where charters had either been selected or might be selected to run the neighborhood school. 

But this time would prove to be different. This time, the opponents of the state takeover were organized and waiting.

Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, Governing has tracked efforts to turn around one Memphis, Tenn., high school. This is the second installment in a four-part series; the other parts can be found at

John is a Governing correspondent covering health care, public safety and urban affairs.
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