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Duncan Looks to Tennessee's Turnaround School District as Model for Country

Memphis, Tenn.

On the last stop of his back-to-school bus tour through three Southern states, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used a panel discussion Wednesday to tackle the education crisis present in so many economically devastated communities across the country. 

The event took place at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy, one of 23 schools in the Achievement School District, Tennessee's turnaround-school effort that is almost entirely located in Memphis.

Duncan's big blue bus rolled straight into a pep rally in the school's courtyard, where a group of about 100 elementary, middle, and high school students cheered and waived red pom-poms. A marching band played, and teachers, principals, faith leaders, and others in the community joined in celebrating the secretary's arrival.

Flanked by students holding banners emblazoned with the names of colleges and universities in Tennessee, Duncan stepped up onto a makeshift stage.

"When I say college," Duncan said, "you say... "

"Ready!" the children screamed, having practiced the saying dozens of times before his arrival.

But this Memphis neighborhood hasn't always had much to celebrate.

The city was crippled after the collapse of the agriculture and then auto industries in the 1980s and 90s. The subsequent economic recession sent it into a tailspin from which it is still trying to recover. In that span of time crime, gangs, and drugs permeated much of the city, and the public schools system languished.

Three years ago, when the state identified the bottom 5 percent of its poorest-performing schools, 69 out of the 83 were in Memphis.  

Cornerstone is still one of the worst schools in the state. But it's benefited for the last three years from an infusion of funding and increased autonomy thanks to the state's Race to the Top funding  through the Obama administration's signature grant competition.

Like many of the schools in the ASD, Cornerstone is the neighborhood's public school, but it's managed by a charter school company, in this case Capstone Education Group, and it partners with various nonprofits that provide support services.

The mix of neighborhood charters and state-run schools that make up the ASD is the grand experiment that Duncan and many education policy experts are watching, while holding their collective breath for positive results. If successful, they say, the model could be replicated in similar communities stuck in suffocating poverty.

"These kids in communities like this historically haven't had the opportunities they deserve," Duncan said at a roundtable discussion with ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic.

"The culture you guys are creating is so incredibly powerful," he said. "If you can prove the naysayers wrong, the implications are national ... and would blow a hole in any myth that says otherwise."

Duncan conceded that money from Race to the Top, though minimal compared to the federal grants for low-income students and those with disabilities, has helped. Nearly $20 million was pumped into ASD from the state's $500 million grant. But he was quick to point out that none of the improvements could have been made without partnerships with nonprofits and community organizations that can provide wraparound services.

Cornerstone partners with Christ United Methodist Church, with the local community center and business development organization, with a nonprofit that helps the city's refugee population, and with others that provide mentoring services.

Barbic said he is overwhelmed with offers from charter organizations and nonprofits seeking to partner with the ASD, but that it's difficult to vet their effectiveness.

"It's about figuring out who's good and who's not," Barbic said. "Having a good heart is not the same as being effective."

Barbic said the most difficult part of his work is recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and principals who "want to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work."

He added that more-rigorous teacher-preparation programs would help, as well as shifting the teaching profession away from one that's seen as a two- or three-year stopover on the way to a different profession.

The panel discussion at Cornerstone wrapped up a tour that took Duncan from Georgia, through Alabama, and into Tennessee. You can see his trip in full with this multimedia map.

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