Low-Rated Tennessee Schools Improve, Decrease in Number

A new list of 85 Priority and Focus Schools from the Tennessee Department of Education was released last week showing improvement throughout the state. This year's findings show that the bottom 5% of schools received higher scores than the bottom 5% did two years ago.

"This is hard work, but results from the first round … show us that it's doable," said state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. "We've seen signs of hope and that's why we believe it is critical to continue investing in these schools."

Previously, the state had promised to improve the bottom 5% when it had applied for a federal waiver for a number of education rules. However, 50 of the 83 original schools still remain in the bottom 5%, most of which are located in poor communities.

The state's accountability system divides schools into three groupings as Priority, Focus, and Reward Schools. Schools are rated every three years, with the first designation having been released in 2012. Priority Schools are the bottom 5% that require the most attention. Focus Schools are the 10% that show the largest achievement gap between students, despite overall performance. Reward Schools show the highest overall performance.

Schools who are given the label "Priority" may be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District (ASD), or placed in an "Innovation Zone," a special group located within each district that offers schools more funding in addition to new staff, schedules, or academic programs.

When a school becomes an ASD school, it is no longer included in the local district. The goal of ASD is to transform schools into the top 25% within five years in a partnership with charter schools KIPP, Lead and Rocketship.

There were 83 Priority Schools in 2012. Since that time, 17 became state-run; 17 are now in innovation zones; and nine were completely closed. A further 38 schools received no help at all.

All five of the Priority Schools in Hamilton County are Title I and are located in the "Innovation Zone."

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said, "We are not where we want to be, but we're pleased that the schools on the priority list made considerable improvement. They have good leadership and have done a really good job."

Fifty-nine of the schools on the Priority list are located in Memphis, an improvement from the previous list which had 69 Memphis-area schools. Kevin Woods, the chair of Shelby County School's board, contributed this to the district's support of all its schools.

"The results we are seeing reflect the work of strong and stable school leadership," he said. "The results are not just in our I-Zone schools but in many of our schools that have chosen to recruit and retain the best teachers while also using data to drive decision-making."

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