Learning From a Charter School Turnaround in Memphis

Jan 29, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Sometimes the best way to get the hang something tricky is to learn from others' experiences. As National School Choice Week wraps up, I recommend listening to some people who work in a choice school about their work. A set of video case studies are now available that give you that chance. You can listen to real people working on some important aspects of charter school success, including:
  • Turning a school around
  • Focusing on student character
  • Engaging and honoring the local community through that process
  • Fostering sustainability, by supporting the teachers and staff for the long haul
These videos are part of a regular series of video case studies produced by the National Charter Schools Resource Center (NCSRC), which is managed by Safal Partners, a Houston-based consulting company. The NCSRC is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter School Program. You can also view other videos on various topics that came out earlier in the series. These short videos highlight Cornerstone Prep, a charter school in Memphis, Tennessee, that is part of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). The school is the first school of the locally-grown charter management organization, Capstone Education Group.

A Turnaround

The Memphis elementary school is example of a school turnaround, or restart. The first video explains this process. The crew at Capstone took over a school that had been chronically low-performing, and turned it into a successful school. Turnarounds have always been a part of the charter school sector, but they have been slower to take off than many expected. In the last few years, examples of successful turnarounds are growing in number, and attention to this issue is growing as foundations and others are wrestling with the challenges that are involved.

Engaging the Community

Turnaround efforts, and schools that operate as part of an Achievement School District, can face challenges with being perceived as outsiders and failing to pay attention to the local community’s concerns. In contrast with new schools that start from scratch, any turnaround must figure out how to pursue their own approach with fidelity, while also honoring local concerns. That can be a tricky balancing act. In the second video, Cornerstone Prep explains the work on this issue.

Focus on Character

The school’s initial test-score gains are impressive, but the school likes to brag about something else—its approach to developing student character. The school prioritizes and puts time into helping children grow into caring and responsible young people. The third video explains this orientation.

Supporting Teachers and Staff for the Long-Haul

Like many schools that are launched and achieve a degree of success, it takes a ton of work by everyone involved. In this fourth and final video, the leaders and staff at Cornerstone Prep explain some of the strategies they are building into their school operations to deal with these challenges.

A Recovery School District

It is worth noting again that this is all going on within the Tennessee Achievement School District. A recovery school district is an approach to dealing with the lowest-performing schools in a state. Given the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we might just see more states adopt a similar policy. The ESSA was crafted to shift authority to states—the law does require them to identify the worst-performing schools, but what they do about them is now a state issue—not a federal one. Increasing interest in this model may make sense under the new federal approach to struggling schools. Recent research, meanwhile, presents mixed results on performance in the ASD relative to other turnaround strategies. But I think it is too early to reach any final judgement. States are going to explore new accountability systems that use the flexibility they have gained through the ESSA. For most schools, with average performance that is acceptable or better, the new state accountability systems may end up inoculating large numbers of schools from state intervention. But the schools that are doing very badly still face federal pressure to improve. As long as the reach of state accountability systems is limited to the lowest performing schools, state leaders may be more willing to embrace more robust and profound forms of change for this much smaller subset of schools identified for change. A turnaround process through their own Recovery School District may fit the bill. Those interested in this idea should listen to the voices of school leaders, staff and community members. In fact, you might want to scroll up and watch that video on community engagement one more time.
Photo courtesy of Safal Partners and Cornerstone Prep, taken as a screenshot from the first video.

Alex Medler

Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to joining Safal Partners, he directed policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, chaired the board of state-wide charter authorizer in Colorado, directed research and policy development for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, led national activities for the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program, and directed charter school and school choice work for the Education Commission of the States. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado Boulder, and lives in Boulder with his wife and two children.

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